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What Can Gardening Teach Us about Leadership?

If you have ever gardened, you might notice some ways that enhancing your green-thumb abilities are similar to working with teams, groups, or organizations.  Gardening requires nurturing, providing needed resources, attention to dangerous environmental phenomena, and timing.  Let us explore these facets of gardening–specifically food crops–as a metaphor for effective leadership.

Before ever planting a seed, a gardener knows that the soil needs tending.  If the soil has the wrong consistency or pH level, then nutrients or compost must be added.  If the soil is too compact, then aerating it will allow the plants to spread roots.  In leadership, this translates to setting up a team for success through proper planning about what followers need in order to grow.  Without setting the stage for a healthy workplace, it will be very difficult for staff to do their job.  But with the proper forethought and attention to what their teams need, leaders set up the organization for success.

Plants, like people, need resources in order to thrive and produce their crops.  Sunlight, water, fertilizer, soil, pollinators, and carbon dioxide are a few of the resources plants need.  Without the right combination of resources (and at the right time), the plants will either produce scrawny food products, or they can die.  Likewise, people and work groups need the right resources in order to be effective.  Think about what resources people in your organization require.  Are they adequate to do the job?  If not, consider what more your organization will be able to produce if it were to have the needed resources to meet organizational goals.  Does this benefit outweigh the current output without these resources?

Mother nature* can provide and cause destruction with seemingly little effort.  One year can be a banner year producing record crop yields, while the next can experience flooding or drought and destroy most plants.  Pests can destroy a field of crops in a short time, if not kept in check (hopefully through natural means!).  In organizations, shifting environmental demands (such as new government regulations) and unexpected phenomena (i.e.: market crashes) can place exorbitant pressure on businesses, forcing them to either adapt or dissolve.  Being resilient enough to shift with the changing environment enables organizations to weather poor markets, or other such storms of doing business.  Effective leaders know when to shift and by how much in order to meet new demands or pressures.

Last in the metaphor is timing.  As eluded to earlier, providing water to plants is necessary; however, too much or too little of this precious life source can bring an early end to the garden.  Organizations, too, can suffer when resources are too excessive or limiting.  Stocking too much product than the market demands can place financial strain on the organization, while not holding enough can anger customers to the point that they become loyal the competition.  Work groups can also suffer when they do not receive the technical, personnel, financial, or other resources that they need to do their job at the right time.  Conducting a resources analysis (what resources are needed, how much, and to whom) is a way for leaders to improve the probability that the organization has the proper resources at the appropriate time.

Learning to lead is a difficult and iterative task, just like gardening.  The first year’s crop might experience hard times as the gardener learns through experience, just as the novice leader might experience difficulty gaining trust and followership from their team.  When all of the facets of effective gardening align–and sometimes with a little luck–the gardener will be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  The leader, too, must continue to develop knowledge, skills, and abilities in leadership through practice, feedback, and academic study/training/reading.

*The “forces of mother nature” in this analogy are akin to the forces of sociology.  Neither can be seen, but they have a strong influence on the outcome of a garden or an organization.

Ross Grübel, MSM, MBA, MSOD

Principal Consultant & CEO at Corvis Group, Inc.
Ross Gruebel is Principal Consultant & CEO of Corvis Group, Inc., which offers consulting for organizations and leaders undergoing organization improvement or change initiatives.We also offer leadership development, meeting & retreat facilitation, and coaching to businesses, non-profits, government agencies, and leaders/managers.

2 thoughts on “What Can Gardening Teach Us about Leadership?

  1. Such a wonderful post full of great insight!

    1. Thank you so much! We’re glad you find it an interesting read