Leadership in the garden

This is a story about leadership in the garden. We are in the middle of winter and the garden looks more or less dead. The beautiful colors are gone and instead it is “fifty shades of grey” that dominates. The trees are naked and it is hard to imagine that just 3-4 months from now they will bloom again and fresh green leaves will erupt all over the tree followed by the most amazing flowers.

Leadership in the garden

The trees looks dead. But underneath all lot of activities is going according to plans. This is just a normal phase in the seasonal life of the garden and the fruit trees. Everything is preplanned by nature and the garden can take care of itself – if needed. But when a garden doesn’t have a gardener it won’t be long until it transforms from a garden to a wilderness or in the worst case to a jungle. It is no more a garden but just chaos without direction.

Like the garden so the organization. An organization needs a gardener to thrive and to grow. In this case the gardener is the leader. If there is no gardener – there will be no leadership and hence the organization will grow wild and turn into a mess.

What does a good gardener (leader) do? Let me take you on a trip in my garden back home in Denmark. It is an old garden established more than 100 years ago. It has been redone and reorganized several times over the years in order to keep healthy and beautiful. I’ve done it several times – but the last time is more than five years ago.

In the garden there is apple, pears and cherry trees. There are flowers in all colors, lots of grass, herbs, strawberries and a greenhouse with tomatoes and cucumbers. And of course lots of weeds in various forms. But – it is all in all a nice garden fulfilling its purpose:  Looking good, supplying my family with fruit, berries and vegetables – and of course space for recreation during the nice and warm summer days.

I take care of the garden. I mow the lawn, I cut the trees down if too old or wrong, I prune the apple trees and I plant new flowers and I water the tomatoes and cucumbers. It’s relaxing to do stuff like that. It’s creative to get an idea, plant the seed and watch it grow.

But the weed….hmmmmm I hate to do that.

What I hate even more is the brutality and cynicism that is an integrated part of the job if you want to be a good gardener. Take the apple trees. Even though I have been pruning them every year in order to make them look better, to grow better and to produce more fruit – it is no way enough. It’s even wrong, because I have been doing it so gently that it actually made it worse.

Leadership in the garden

I really haven’t had the courage to prune the trees properly and make space for the winners.  Why not? I have been afraid of doing it wrong and maybe accidently kill one of the trees. That is why I just done a little pruning and keeping myself in the illusion of being an effective gardener.

Like in leadership: Sometimes you have to be very brutal and remove a product, person or even a business in order to make the business grow better or make place for new ideas and products. When you prune a tree the result in the short term doesn’t look good and often you think you went too far with the saw and actually killed the tree.

Like when you as a leader take the hard decision to close a department or to fire a manager. It leaves a big hole in the organization and it is hard to see how life can go on unaffected.

And now we are at the point of what I’m trying to say: Pruning your trees (organization) is a necessity to create new life. When you deliberately create “holes” by pruning your organization the light gets in where it couldn’t before and creates new life. Air circulates better and new growth appears.  The foundation for new life is created and most important it has created a stronger foundation for the future.

Back in my garden the trees looks wild and un-managed. Well – I admit last year they didn’t provide as much fruit as they used to do. First I thought that it could be global climate change – then local climate (we had some cold days in spring when the trees were blooming) then I was thinking of the wet summer and also at the lack of honey bees to pollinate the apple flowers.

They are all external factors to blame. Like in business when it start to go bad.

Last year my neighbor went berserk and did a heavy pruning of his apple trees. They were almost cut back to nothing but the log and three branches. My first thought was that he was mad and that was the end of those beautiful trees. In my mind the literally closed that part of his “business”. Almost nothing was left and no fruit that year.

But something interesting happened during spring, summer and autumn. The trees began to grow and new leaves and branches emerged. And the end of the season all the “killed” trees were standing back sound and so much alive. In the forthcoming season so ready to produce the best fruit ever.

Where am I heading with all this gardening and leadership babble?

To keep an organization or a group sound and capable of constant growth and innovation you as the top leader have to keep on “pruning” the trees all the time. Cut away the old ideas to make room for new ideas – cut away managers to let others get the light he or she was withholding and creating shade instead.

This constant gardening with scissors, saw and sometimes the chainsaw must be an integrated part of the tools in leadership in every organization.


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