Growing Leadership

Are there "weeds" in your company whose value hasn’t yet been seen and tapped? Can you find ways to turn some of these individuals into powerful Safety proponents?

I'm in my garden pretty much every day I’m at home from Spring through early Autumn. Growing plants, berries, fruits, and vegetables frequently reminds me of the challenges of leadership—helping change attitudes, actions, and habits for greater Safety, engagement, and productivity.

It's not just me. Tracy Bosnian is a Chartered Herbalist, not surprisingly also a master gardener—and an organizational leader. She makes things happen through weaving together persistence, fostering communications, overcoming resistance, crafting supportive arrangements, following through quickly, and more. She also sees the parallels between gardening and leadership.

This goes well beyond the simplistic "gardening wisdom" in the '70s Peter Sellers' farcical movie, "Being There," based on a Jerzy Kosiński novel. Leaders who wish to can apply principles of growing living plants toward harvesting Safety and overall organizational success. And there are readily learnable skills for further greening their leadership thumbs.

When I asked her about the connection between plant caretaking and leadership, Tracy opened up with, "You have to tend to each. You can't just put a seed in the ground and expect it to flourish. Do so and you're as likely to wind up with stunted, dehydrated, struggling plants. In the same way, you have to prepare the ground for new additions to your organization and continue to tend to them with the right direction and adjustments. Don't forget that, like plants, once productive workers can also develop problems.

"And it's not just a matter of selecting the 'right' seeds. I hear 'We're hiring happy people,' but from everything I've seen, good leaders make for more satisfied and focused workers."

I know that Balance is critical to both gardening and leadership. Too little water—well, you know. . . . But too much water can drown a plant. Too little attention or feedback to others allows them to either stray way off course or just become lackadaisical and wind up going through minimal motions. Too much attention, micro-managing, stifles initiative and creativity; this can lead to a bare-bones, cover-your-rear mindset that generates average results at best in Safety and productivity.

Tracy reminds, "Having a highly productive garden, like an organization, means attending to more than just one plant. Some plants do better as 'companions' to others, supporting one another's growth. Marigold and nasturtium flowers planted near vegetables will help repel bug pests. Some squelch certain others when in proximity. For example, peas do best when planted near carrots, corn, or cucumbers. But they don't do well near onions or garlic. The same applies to people; one person might work swimmingly in tandem with another where they clash and conflict with a third. Like peas, that target person isn't a 'problem' and can offer a lot to the organization—just when working complementarily in the right team."

Of course, gardeners have the advantage of charts indicating best and to-be-avoided pairings. Instead, organizational leaders have to monitor what's going on. Best leaders keep regular team check-ups on their to-do schedule, not assuming that everything and everyone will just perfectly take care of themselves.

Both gardening and leadership require ongoing attention and effort, not one-shot inoculations. I’ve seen some Safety leaders set a complacent tone in their culture by doing the same-old things, programs, training, implementations on auto-pilot—as their "garden" loses potency.

Both leaders and master gardeners utilize two strategies:

1. "Addition." For gardeners this includes what strains of seeds they select, where they plant for right amount of sun exposure, how much watering (which can greatly vary between plants), provide appropriate space for that select plant to grow, plant at desired depth, amend with the right nutrients. (e.g. earthworm castings, mycorrhizal root inoculant, fertilizer, etc.) And more.

For leaders: It's providing clear directions, transferring the right mental and physical skills, creating easy-to-understand-and-do policies and procedures, monitoring communications (and, like plants, some need differing kinds and amounts.)

Things never go exactly according to even the best plan/garden layout. Problem-solving—noticing at an early level where things aren't going well and taking the best responsive action—is perhaps one of the most important skills both great leaders and gardeners have in common.

2. "Subtraction." This entails removing or minimizing obstacles and forces that could inhibit growth. Like not giving in to the desire to over-fertilize or over-water. And reducing competing "weeds" that could otherwise draw away a plant's needed nutrients or block access to sunlight.

One of the most important forces leaders should "subtract" is their own over-impatience. Just as digging up a seed to see whether it has begun to sprout will likely kill it, impatient/too-soon pressure often inhibits others' creative engagement.

There's a balance, too, with weeding. Some weeds are noxious, stopping other plant growth. These should be removed (I find doing it satisfying to do so.) Similarly, courageous leaders separate from/let go those supervisors who aren’t aboard Safety. While I understand this can be difficult to do when these line leaders drive for productivity, it's critical to part with those who actively stymie Safety efforts. They aren't good Safety culture companions.

Changemaster Kurt Lewin's work illustrated how leaders' reducing inhibiting forces to change led to greater and more lasting improvements than "doing more." Same in gardening. Leaders should make it a habit to ask themselves, "What is—or could be—getting in the way of/restraining our moving to higher levels of Safety performance and engagement?"

But there's more to "weeds." Tracy quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: "A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." For example, while many destroy dandelions as a garden nuisance, these are actually vitamin- and mineral-rich plants with an abundance of nutritional attributes.

Are there "weeds" in your company whose value hasn't yet been seen and tapped? Can you find ways to turn some of these individuals into powerful Safety proponents? While I may not be a master gardener, I've seen human "weeds" time and again help transform Safety results within numerous companies.

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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