Leadership That Cultivates a Culture Conducive for Optimal Performance

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Leadership Lessons from the Garden 

by Jocelyn Little

Leadership is hard. No matter what goals and challenges are present, there often aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything. This is true whether you have a formal leadership title or not. As leaders, it’s easy to get tangled up in the day-to-day operations and decisions that need to be made and prioritizing what occupies your time is critical for success and your sanity. However, what often is overlooked is the importance of maintaining a healthy culture within your team. 

Gardening has provided some valuable leadership lessons in my life.

I began to pick up gardening as a hobby a few years ago. What started as a fun project with my son turned into my daily passion and escape from the challenges and troubles of the day. Upon moving a year ago, I purposefully selected a home that included a good sized back yard for my garden. This year was the first year that I could properly build and cultivate a garden that was conducive for a high yield of crop. I was excited. The garden grew quickly from seed to plant, producing several delicious produce that we enjoy consuming. But something was severely wrong and today I had enough. 

As I chopped away at my garden, I began to reflect on how leadership is much like this garden. Every day, I tended to my garden morning and afternoon, much like we tend to our teams daily. I kept a careful eye for moisture levels, the nutrients I was providing, the pests that were invading, the protection from unfavorable elements — similarly we care for our teams and look out for their needs. When I couldn’t be available to tend to my garden, I left it in capable hands with specific directions on how to care for my crop. I carefully nurtured each plant based on what that individual plant’s needs were — just as leaders often provide unique care for each individual. I was extremely proud of what each plant began to produce as they grew and became more resilient. Yet still, each harvest began to diminish in size. While external factors do contribute to the diminished productivity of my plants, there was something else happening below the otherwise seemingly healthy and vibrant foliage that was a contributing factor to their slowing productivity.

About a month ago, I began noticing leaf miners on some leaves. Leaf miners are insects that, at the larvae stage, live in and eat the leaf tissue of the plants. This affects the amount of chlorophyll in the leaves, which minimizes the amount of photosynthesis that the plant can produce, leading to diminished energy that the plant needs for growth and production. A small amount of leaf miners may not affect the plant, but a larger concentration of them can stunt the plant’s growth. 

The before and after photos of one of my plants that was affected by leaf miners. Not dealing with the problem earlier on left large gaps and slowed growth with low productivity. What would happen if there were gaps in your team would that affect productivity and growth?

In my focus of keeping other insects and challenges of my garden at bay, I kept putting off dealing with the leaf miners as it wasn’t a bad problem yet. I kept telling myself, “It’s not that bad; I will deal with them later.” As days turned into weeks, and weeks into a month, I finally was forced to deal with this problem. As I began to remove the affected leaves, I quickly realized just how fast the problem had manifested. Leaf after leaf, I filled a bucket. As I got deeper down the plant towards the root, the health of the leaves diminished — at the top, the leaves were seemingly healthy and vibrant with just a few problem areas. But as I made my way down, the leaves looked less and less healthy until the very bottom where the leaves were void of all life and nutrients. 

The bucket filled with affected leaves. Imagine what a "bucket of damage" could look like with your team if problems are not resolved efficiently! At what level of the organization would be most affected?

As I made my way down the plant, my hands and arms were scratched from the tiny prickles of the plant’s natural defenses, which also caused slight rashes from the pollen and other elements that the scratches allowed into my skin. It was nothing that was a severe threat to my health, but something that I had to now endure for the rest of the night until the rashes subsided. By the end, my plants had huge, bare spots and I had irritation to my skin up to my shoulders. Had I dealt with the issue consistently from the beginning, my plant wouldn’t be chopped up and I wouldn’t have to suffer from scratches throughout my arms. But more so, I may have had much more productive plants that provided bountiful produce that could be shared with others beyond my family.

Leadership isn’t just about ensuring our team is productive. It’s beyond watching for major challenges and roadblocks. Leaders must be aware of the small issues the tiny cuts that could manifest into much larger problems if not taken care of immediately and consistently. What starts with just a few can quickly spread to many — and the consequences can be as severe as losing valuable team members or worse, having them stay as part of the team but are injured and draining the whole team of energy and productivity. It isn’t enough to simply identify the problem — we must act immediately to preserve our most valuable asset…our people, our team members. 

There will always be more pests and insects in my garden — it’s unrealistic to think I have vanquished it all because I fixed this problem, just as teams will always face new challenges and issues. As leaders, we must stay vigilant to these challenges and act quickly to minimize the casualties of the problems. We owe it to our team to create a healthy, positive and safe culture that cultivates optimal performance.

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