Gardening your Organisation

When you acquire a garden, you acquire the conditions that come with it. The plants (or lack of them), trees, the soil type and it’s aspect; north, south, east, or west. The amount of sun and rain makes a huge difference, like having a buoyant or difficult market.

It strikes me that there is a great deal of similarity between being a gardener and a leader. The plants are your people, and the garden is the environment (culture and context) within which they operate; how high maintenance your garden or organisation is, in the long run, down to the decisions and actions that you take. Will its success live beyond you and have a positive legacy, or does it only work when you are there constantly tending?

Just as there are different types of leaders, there are different types of gardeners. Just as there are several (hundred) theoretical leadership models, there are different ways to be a gardener.  However, in a very practical sense, it seems to me, these differences can be distilled down to just two kinds of gardener (and leader); those that work with the condition in the garden they have and those that work to an aspiration despite the starting conditions.  Both types of gardeners might have the same outcome, to have a beautiful garden, but their end result and how they get there will be very different.

Gardeners that work with the garden they have realise that this result will not happen quickly, but the payoff is longevity. They might do some initial tidying up, mow the grass, do some weeding and that will be about it at first. Primarily this type of gardener is about stepping back and understanding the condition of the garden they have inherited and what this means. They watch and observe. They ask themselves a series of questions about how the garden is and what makes it so. Is it south or north facing? What’s the soil like? What else is competing for light? How much rain does it get? What’s currently flourishing and what isn’t? When they know the answers to these questions then they can start to plan. It is only at this point, that they will start to add detail to their outcome; the garden they want based on what is likely to do well. They may improve the soil over time so that existing plants can do even better but at the same time being careful not to over feed or over water.

 evolutionary leading

This is ‘just right’ gardening, making just enough change over time to add interest and added benefits like fragrance or wildlife. Doing just enough pruning, just enough clearing to add air, and only cutting back hard if the conditions require it.  Gardening, in this way is about planning and researching as much as doing and picking plants that eventually thrive with increasingly less input from the gardener. It might take many years to get the point of a mature garden and may take some careful experimentation, but all experimentation will be based on a carefully observed bank of knowledge and skill. Eventually, this type of garden, planned for its conditions, will need little maintenance, and can be mostly left to just grow and could potentially be gardened somewhat successfully by even the most novice of gardeners. It will no longer need the experienced gardener as an integral part of its growth.

revolutionary leading

The second type of gardener is the one that works towards an aspiration despite the existing conditions. This about making the garden match the will of the gardener. This is perfectly possible, and success will be largely down to the gardener. It is a garden that is only attempted by either the very experienced or the very naïve. But whether naïve or skilled, this garden will require high resource input in cost and especially in time and hard work. It can require extensive landscaping, including changing the topsoil and often plants that will need constant maintenance. Whether you are a novice or expert, if you have enough resources quick results can be achieved just through buying and planting (the hard work of which shouldn’t be underestimated); an almost insta-garden. It is possible to make it look great initially, but because some conditions are not possible to change i.e., the direction of the sun, plants may need constant tending to keep plants healthy. Plants may need to be replaced if they fail to thrive and if this essential maintenance does not take place, there is the potential for disease to spread from sickly to healthy plants. The success of the garden will always be related to the skill of the gardener and will never be a low maintenance endeavour. This type of garden should only be undertaken by the most skilled and experienced, but the promise or seduction of instant impact is often the downfall of the naïve.

In terms of Leadership (and gardening) there is clearly more nuance than my rather simple binary analogy. The garden is everything connected to the environment within which your organisation operates both internally (culture) and externally (market). The plants and potential harmonious wildlife are your people and partners. Both types of gardener, can create something transformational and beautiful; the only differences being the choices and the speed by which they want to get there. Are you an evolutionary (happens over time working with your existing conditions) or a revolutionary (quick change, conditions are a challenge to be overcome) gardener?  Are you an evolutionary or revolutionary leader?

I think Leaders can be seduced into wanting to be a revolutionary leader and get the kudos for quick wins but to sustain this takes hard work and is essentially higher risk. Results and success are driven by the leader and are dependent on their skill, input, and access to resources (turnaround teams, injections of cash etc.)  Therefore, success is largely about their decisions and what they do or fail to do. Those that are successful do not often stay that long in an organisation, as they are often on the journey to be revolutionary elsewhere. If they stay long term, they risk the impact of everything falling apart because of just one bad decision or one bad hire. Credibility, at this point is hard to regain, because there will be a likely mismatch between the vision and reality. I’m not saying that a revolutionary leader is never a useful for an organisation and it should be recognised that it is never a long-term strategy (it’s incredibly hard to maintain) and will have costs attached.

Evolutionary Leadership is not sexy, not macho, or showy. The risk here, is whether you can persuade others (partners, investors etc.) to wait for results. It’s slow and deliberate leadership, Changes take place subtly over time. Evolutionary leaders work from a constant state of observation and listening, reflecting on what they hear, making small tweaks either in what they do, or how things are done.  It’s a constant feedback loop and because it is constant and small it goes unnoticed. It’s requires high patience, persistence and the payoff is; it’s low in conflict.  The aim is to create an organisation that learns how to grow together and as such will learn how to weather future storms cohesively. Like a gardener, this type of leader is about creating an organisation that is more resilient in the long term for the climate it operates in (my hypothesis is that this is related to how our brains work). In my experience, this kind of leadership creates an invisible legacy of capability, that lasts beyond the leader. The Leader, who quietly tends and builds capability, may go unnoticed for the difference they make, but they will make one.

You can learn to be any kind of leader; we can be revolutionary, or we can be evolutionary. It is possible to be both and sometimes that may be necessary. But recognise, revolution is only ever short term and is highly likely to have consequences; conflict (rebellion), cost, high input, and potentially high turnover.  After every revolution there is often a drift back to a form of how things were before (or worse) because the status quo has been destabilised and the inherent nature of matter (even organisations) is to restabilize. Every period of revolution is followed eventually (even if it goes through several cycles first) followed by a period of regrouping and much needed calm. After this, a more evolutionary approach follows.

I have wondered, if revolution, is ever really that successful and is just a reaction to an unwanted status quo, rather than a more thoughtful and strategic approach to change and organisational development. It’s possible that we need to let go of our need for quick change and cultivate a more evolutionary approach to leadership, that is more mindful of the ecology of the organisation and how individuals coexist to create a culture that is resilient and can grow without a constant need to be tended.


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