The Leader as Gardener

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Here at the-Coaching Blog-run by Gerard O’Donovan, our aim is to constantly bring value to those seeking to improve their lives. Therefore we have a policy of publishing articles and materials by guest authors whom we value and appreciate. Today’s guest author is Dr. Gerhard van Rensburg (South Africa).
The art of the good gardener lies in his ability to learn and 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 to understand 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 affect growth in a direct sense, for instance to command 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 forms a self-reinforcing growth process. No amount of force from the leader can affect or accelerate the natural growth process. What the leader, as the gardener, can do is to limit the conditions that constrain growth. The gardener will focus his attention on providing adequate water, sunlight, soil nutrients, room for the roots to expand and the right temperature. The leader creates the right conditions for growth by focusing his attention on the levels of trust (allowing for innovation and creativity), shared vision, the quality of relationships and teamwork, and the strategic positioning of the organisation in relation to its environment. This way leaders does not 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 that are entitled to all kinds of privileges and freedoms. The spirit of stewardship ensures both responsibility and 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 with love, creativity and productiveness. The spirituality of a leader is by no means irrelevant to his 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 has become a more than a passing fad.
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 in 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 it makes a difference to 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 a person’s character quality, specifically his authenticity and transparency. The leader has to model it but also actively encourage it in his 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 amongst themselves for recognition and acclamation. The more the leader is able to let people share in the vision and focus on the purpose, the less are the chances that people continue to focus on their personal achievements and recognition.
An enemy to trust is assumptions about each other. High levels of trust can only be achieved through the hard work of ongoing and thorough communication. It is custom to give busy-ness as an excuse for the lack of communication but in reality we become much more ineffective and definitely pay a huge price in allowing mistrust to creep in. It is only through communication that we can check our assumptions and help others to build confidence in our trustworthiness.
Building trust also has a more positive aspect to it. It is not only to keep 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 inconsistent with what they espouse and create unpleasant surprises and disappointments, it allows for positively trusting others with responsibility. From the leader’s perspective trusting and empowering others in this sense, is to put trust in a person’s competence, as it was earned by the individual, but also in his potential to learn and grow with more experience and freedom to push the boundaries.
The by-product of high levels of trust is innovation and creativity. Once trust is the rule and not the exception, the latent potential in people will be unlocked. It is the basic ingredient of a culture where people feel that they want to contribute more than what is necessary for the status quo. It creates the condition for both personal growth and team spirit. The enemy of trust is fear. In a climate of fear creativity and innovation are smothered. It is ironical that so many leaders hold on to an autocratic leadership style, favouring command and control, whilst the challenge that we are confronted with is to be creative and innovative. The excuse often is that the nature of the business or work that they do does not allow for creativity and innovation. But that was said of many work environments where the assumption later was proven wrong. Lateral thinking will always give any organisation advantage. By telling people at lower levels that they should only do and not think, an organisation is actively discouraging growth and development.
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 also is something of a cheer leader who can enthuse people in the way he communicates through words and body language. To be credible, his excitement about the vision has to be visible and tangible. The inspiration with which he communicates originates from the mental picture he has of better future and the belief he has in everyone’s ability to contribute to that vision. If the message from the leader is not authentic in the sense that he 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 there are not only care and inspiration but also discipline and wisdom. In his book From good to great Jim Collins after extensive research identifies disciplined people, disciplined thought and disciplined action as the key to transforming a good organisation to a great one. The leader’s discipline comes from the hard work to identify the twenty percent (the Pareto principle) things that really are important in pursuit of the vision. Then to do and advocate those things consistently until it 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. It 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. It means to have “deep understanding”, “to have keen discernment”, “to have sanctified common sense”, “to have the capacity for sound judgment”. 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 lesson in life and to seek wisdom by learning from mentors and searching for spiritual truths.
Credit Source:
Dr Gerhard van Rensburg is an experienced leadership and executive coach and consultant in the field of organisational development. He has vast experience in individual and team coaching and worked with various clients.
He is also the author of two leadership books: The leadership challenge in Africa and Leadership thoughts – inspire yourself inspire others.
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