The Leader as Gardener
The art of the good gardener lies in his or her ability to learn and to appreciate natural growth processes. The shift in our understanding of organisations since the days when engineers analysed organisations as they analysed machines for their efficiency is towards understanding that organisations are fundamentally living systems of human beings. As the potential for growth is in the seed, so it is present in the members of the organisation individually and collectively.
However, in the same way that the gardener does not effect growth in a direct sense, for instance by commanding the seed to grow, the leader can only help create the right conditions for growth. Growth occurs through an interaction between the seed and its environment. It is thus a self-reinforcing growth process. No amount of force from the leader can effect or accelerate the natural growth
IN BLACK & WHITE | Gerhard van Rensburg
process. What the leader, as gardener, can do is to limit the conditions that constrain growth. The gardener will focus his or her attention on providing adequate water, sunlight, soil nutrients, room for the roots to expand, and the right temperature. Leaders create the right conditions for growth by focusing their attention on the levels of trust (allowing for innovation and creativity), on shared vision, on the quality of relationships and teamwork, and on the strategic positioning of the organisation in relation to its environment. In this way, leaders don’t drive change, but participate in the growth processes and mitigate the constraints on change.
Particularly the metaphor of the gardener illustrates how leaders should be alert to the trap of seeing themselves as owners who are entitled to all kinds of privileges and freedoms. The spirit of stewardship ensures both responsibilityand humility. Stewardship ultimately implies the belief that we, as human beings, are not gods, but are graced with the gift of life and the opportunities to contribute in a unique way to our world through love, creativity and productiveness. The spirituality of a leader is by no means irrelevant to his or her influence and ability to create an environment for growth. In recent years, a growing number of books and articles on the subject indicate that spirituality in the workplace and the leader’s prominent role in guiding the spiritual quality of an organisation have become more than a passing fad.
Creating an Environment through Art
The art, then, for the leader is to create, together with others, an environment that is conducive to personal growth as well as the growth of the organisation. The organisation’s growth can be measured financially in the case of business organisations, but, more importantly, by the level of fulfilment that the members experience in being part of it. The financial success of a business will be one of the fruits of a well-cared-for ‘organisational garden’. People want to feel cared for. They need to feel that they are respected for their uniqueness and intrinsic worth as human beings. They want to feel that they belong to something where they can contribute, because this makes a difference in their own lives. One of the cornerstones for such an environment would be high levels of trust.
Building trust is hard work and takes time. It is hard work because trust is not automatically present. The ability to create trusting relationships is directly related to people’s quality of character, specifically their authenticity and transparency. The leader has to model it, but also has to actively encourage it in his or her team and organisation. A threat to authenticity and transparency, and, therefore, to mutual trust, is an overly competitive environment where members of the organisation compete among themselves for recognition and acclamation. The more the leader is able to let people share in the vision and to focus on the purpose, the less are the chances that they will continue to focus on their personal achievements and recognition.
Building trust also has a more positive aspect to it. It is not only about keeping the destructiveness of mistrust in check. The positive side to building trust is to put your trust in others, which is to empower. When one is no longer concerned that, every now and then, people behave inconsistently with regard to what they espouse and cause unpleasant surprises and disappointments, this allows for positively trusting others with responsibility. From the leader’s perspective, trusting and empowering others in this sense is to put one’s trust in a person’s competence that has been earned by the individual, but also in his or her potential to learn and grow with more experience and freedom to push the boundaries.
The creation of an environment for growth is hugely dependent on the leader’s ability to inspire people. This ability has to be understood as the effect of the combination of attributes as I have described it. The inspirational leader is also something of a cheerleader who can enthuse people in the way he or she communicates through words and body language. To be credible, leaders’ excitement about the vision has to be visible and tangible. The inspiration with which they communicate originates from the mental picture they have of a better future and the belief they have in everyone’s ability to contribute to that vision. If the message from the leader is not authentic in the sense that he or she truly believes in it, it will be more demotivating than inspirational.
For people to have the experience that they find themselves in an environment where they can grow, they need to feel that there is not only care and inspiration, but also discipline and wisdom. In his book, From Good to Great, Jim Collins, after extensive research, identified disciplined people, disciplined thought and disciplined action as the key to transforming a good organisation into a great one. The leader’s discipline comes from the hard work of identifying the 20% (the Pareto principle) of things that really are important in pursuit of the vision – then to do and advocate those things consistently until these can be viewed as the norm and part of the culture of an organisation.
Lastly, leaders need to apply wisdom to the environment they lead and operate in. This relates to the ability to bring something unique and appropriate to a situation, thus optimising the potential for growth. One way of describing wisdom is to say that, after gaining knowledge, wisdom is used to meet new situations. Wisdom means ‘to have deep understanding’, ‘to have keen discernment’, ‘to have sanctified common sense’, ‘to have the capacity for sound judgement’. Most people do become wiser as they age, yet some of us are slow and reluctant learners in the art of life. Good leaders will be those who have made the commitment to consciously reflect on the lessons of life and to seek wisdom by learning from mentors and searching for spiritual truths.