How is Leadership Development like Gardening? By the way, how is your crop doing?

I had one of those “light bulb” reflective moments recently.     I suspect most of you know what I am talking about.  I was sitting there and this thought burst into my mind sort of like how     Marlon Brando would break through the door in the movie “A Streetcar named Desire” or how George C. Scott would slap a solider when he portrayed General George Patton during the movie depicting the late general’s life.  Many times I will let these types of thoughts pass, but this one just kept coming back and I think it holds some great value when you look at leadership development.  Being an analogous guy at heart I think we will give this a try.  Tell me how it works for you.

Gardening, or growing a crop, is a process that requires time, inputs and skill.  Let’s look at two common garden plants, with    one being lettuce and the other being asparagus.    If you have ever sewn lettuce you know that it produces quickly and does not last too long.  It is probably the best type of crop for most Americans because they can gain that immediate gratification that most of us seem to seek.  Asparagus, now that is a totally different story.  If you want asparagus today you better go to the market or to the grocery.  If you decide to grow your own you will not have a useful crop for 2 to 3 years, but if you like asparagus like I do it is well worth the wait.  Lettuce and asparagus remind me of different types of skills or experience that you or your co workers may seek in a leadership development experience.  Like lettuce, some skills can be easily gained and you can “sew” them today and see a result very soon.  Some of the more critical or complex skills are similar to asparagus.  They require time and the proper situation in order to flourish.  In a similar manner, some of the most valuable leadership development skills come from a specific experience that cannot be gained or set up overnight.  A common misconception held by many is that leadership can be thought solely in a classroom.  This fallacy is sometimes hard to change and upon further review you will learn that most leadership skills come from the right experience in the right situation in the workplace.

My first learning about the lessons of experience and how they apply to leadership development came many years ago when I first got involved with the    Center for Creative Leadership, better known as CCL.  CCL has many years of knowledge and experience in understanding how leaders function and how they learn.  The most important lesson I learned is that leadership comes from experience and not from the classroom.  The classroom can certainly augment effective leadership development, but the experience and the ability to reflect and debrief are critical in the proper development of leadership skills.

Lettuce and asparagus can be grown in many ways, but most of you will have a garden that serves as the preparation site for each.  In a similar manner, every company should have a “Leader Garden” or a place/methodology they employ in order to develop their current and future leaders.  The concept of a Leader Garden is one that can be ambiguous, but it has symbolic and tangible components.  The Leader Garden, could really be represented by any part of the company, and the garden can also be an experience or set of experiences that occur within or related to the company.  We will talk more about that in future posts.

What do your crops look like right now?  Do you have a Leader Garden in your firm?  Who is tending the crops?  What will you harvest this year and what does your 3 to 5 year plan look like?

I am an analogy driven person and this analogy works well for me.  Stephen Covey talks about the “law of the farm” in his 7 Habits book and that holds true in your Leader Garden as well.  It is hard, if not impossible, to violate the “law of the farm” when it comes to leadership.  Many of the most critical leadership lessons take time, input and tending and the same is true of crops like asparagus.

I suggest you take a look at your firm and consider the following:

  • what does our current crop of leaders look like?
  • where will our future crop of leaders come from?
  • are there any weeds or stray crops that need to be tended to in our crop?
  • are we providing the proper environment to cultivate the leaders we have and need?
  • are we experiencing, or will we see a “leader drought” because of inattention and focus to this critical need?

I’ll be back with more.  I need to go wash my hands now since I have been playing in the dirt for so long on this post.