There's a big difference between a gardener and a master gardener.
You know what it is? A master gardener pays attention to the details. It's not always an innate quality. By sheer hard work, constant research, an investment in time, and consistent habits he or she fosters growth in ways an ordinary gardener doesn't understand. A master works harder for better results.
I could easily be talking about leadership, and if you wondered if the analogy fits, you'd be correct. Leadership is so much like gardening, it's almost scary.
I've learned a bit about the subject. A few weeks ago, I set out to make a rather ambitious garden with about 100 different plants. I'm a total newbie. I've already written about my big (ahem) learning experiences related to early planting and freeze warnings. Oops. Guess I needed to take another gardening class.
Now, the third time around, I'm seeing some early seedlings and watching as one amazing product called Seedsheet--from a startup, no less--is proving that anyone can take up this craft, even me. That said, apart from all of the technology, a few soil sensors, the Seedsheet, and an irrigation system that connects to an app on my iPhone (it's amazing, trust me), it's still a challenge. I have to grow along with the plants. I'm still learning many lessons the hard way (e.g., one seed at a time).
As leaders, it's too easy to see the role as one of domination and control. You are in charge and you want everyone to know that. Yet, if you tend a garden, you learn quickly that the plants have their own way of surviving in the wild. You can't pull on the green stems. A nurturing approach is not "an" option in leadership (and in gardening); it's the only option. It's also something you can learn with practice and patience, similar to gardening. (The biggest difference between good leaders and great leaders is that the great ways are highly teachable.)
To lead effectively, you have to nurture. In many ways, the gardening analogy is better than any other analogy (say, running a race, rowing, or building a house).
You have to get really good at doing these things:
1. Look for the growth
Growth will happen, especially with the most teachable employees. Sometimes, you have to look a little harder (insert a joke about Millennials here). I had to get down on my hands and knees to see the germination in my garden, but when there were signs of life at first, it was a wonderful discovery. I did the happy dance, which is weird if you know I look a bit like a football player. I felt like doing an "air" five with some of the trees around my yard. That kind of excitement all from seeing something grow? A happy dance, really? If only we acted that excited as leaders in the workplace.
2. Nurture in any way possible
New growth in a garden is hard to spot and even harder to nurture. I've used this analogy before, but it's a bit like the security industry. (Hang on, it will make sense in a minute.) In security, you have to use any means possible to protect your files. Install a firewall, use anti-virus software, train employees. In gardening, you have to build a fence, add plant food, and cover the seedlings if there is an imminent freeze, unless you forget. Great leaders do the same. Leadership is primarily an act of defense. You defend employees, protect them, give them a place to do their jobs. Any other arrangement can quickly turn into a dictatorship.
3. Plant seeds
The best leaders know how to plant the germ of an idea. They're subtle. "What would it take to get this new product launch a few more clicks on Facebook?" Maybe you already know the answer. Planting a seed is a way to encourage others to think, to foster ambitious ideas, to encourage creativity. The alternative to this leadership style is being the one who always has the best idea. To employees, that's like taking a fully grown tomato plant, digging a hole, and placing it into a garden. "Hey everyone, look at how amazing I am! I'm the leader!" The shade alone from that massive stalk will kill the seeds (and the ideas). True leaders think about the whole garden.
4. Get excited by progress
Don't give anyone a warm embrace when they hit a sales target or land a contract, since that's not exactly appropriate in a work setting, but you do have to figure out how to show encouragement and get excited about progress. Jump up and down. Give high fives. Learn the fine art of side hugs. For me, it was a moment of total joy seeing the seedlings take root in my garden finally, and I couldn't help thinking about raising my kids and the days so long ago when I was leading large corporate teams. It's not a realization about "wow, you did an amazing job as a leader/gardener and caused this growth" as much as a pure form of excitement. You realize that, in the right conditions, people do actually learn, grow, and change.
5. Remove impediments
Maybe the primary act of all great leaders is to remove impediments. Weeds always inhibit growth in a garden (unless you use the product I mentioned earlier, which prevent weeds from growing in the first place). You have to get creative about this process. Resolve conflict. Pay people what they are worth so they can perform their job. Remove distractions and confront problems. Like the master gardener, you are the primary weed control expert charged with encouraging growth.
6. Praise consistently
Great leaders carry a watering can at all times. The job is highly dependent on your ability to nurture. Forget the sandwich principle (e.g., every negative remark should be "sandwiched" with one slice of praise on top and another on the bottom). Just praise. People have enough negative markers in their life for what they are doing wrong. Be the person who tells them what they are doing right and maybe, just maybe, they will grow into something amazing.