Leadership:
Be a Gardener, Not a Mechanic

by Rodger Dean Duncan
[source unknown]

A first tendency of many business people is to fix things. After all, we're paid to solve problems, so the metaphor of the mechanic seems natural.

Unfortunately, some leaders then try to fix people.

How many of us want to be fixed?

No one wants to be fixed. Many people may be open to persuasion or influence, but they don’t want to be “fixed.”

Rather than adopt the role of mechanic, great leaders adopt the role of gardener. What does a gardener do?

A gardener creates an environment that encourages growth. An environment full of light and nourishment. An environment with sufficient space for stretching and expanding. Leadership – and gardening – are all about creating positive change.

Great leaders – and great gardeners – resist the temptation to micromanage. They know that flowers can’t grow if you keep jerking them out of the ground to check the roots.

Great leaders don’t get hung up on position or titles or perks.

Like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said: “Being in power is like being a lady. If you have to remind people you are, you aren’t.”

Great leaders invest their energy in creating devotion to a worthy cause. They are more interested in getting a job done than in who gets the credit.

Let me illustrate: I worked with a chief executive officer of an organization that had lost $156 million the previous year. He was brought in from the outside to turn the company around.

His third day on the job he went out into the employee parking lot behind the headquarters building. That side of the building was all glass, so he suspected (hoped, actually) that many employees would be watching him through the windows.

At the front of the employee parking lot was a row of 17 reserved parking spaces. This was “privileged parking” set aside for the company’s executives. In front of each reserved parking space was a sign with an executive’s name on it.

The CEO had a can of spray paint. He walked up to the first reserved parking space, shook up the can of paint, and sprayed over the executive’s name. He walked up to the second reserved parking space, shook up the can of paint, and sprayed over the executive’s name. He did that with all 17 of the executive parking spaces.

Then he went inside the headquarters building and got on the public address system that had never been used for anything but fire drills.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” the CEO announced to several thousand startled employees. “Some of you were likely watching me though the windows and you saw me paint over the names of the executives in the employee parking lot. You may be wondering, ‘What in the world is that guy doing? Is he firing all the executives?’

“No, I’m not firing all the executives. We need ‘em. We need everybody. We’re all in this boat together and we need to row together. Last year this company lost $156 million. We can do better. We must do better.

Beginning today we’re going to break down all these artificial barriers between our team members. We’re going to be less concerned about what title you have and what parking place you have. Beginning tomorrow, if you get here late and it’s raining, you’ll get wet. If you get to work early, you can park anywhere you want. All that matters is what each of us will do to make our team stronger and build our business. Thanks. Have a great day.”

This CEO was demonstrating what it means to be a gardener and not a mechanic.

He did dozens and dozens of things like that. The cumulative effect was that he created an environment where his people felt involved and obligated regarding the needs of each other and the needs of the organization.

He helped his people see themselves in a fresh light. He helped them see each other in a fresh light. He helped them see their market place potential in a fresh light.

Rather than smother his people with constraining rules and policies, he gave them elbowroom to try new things and experiment in new directions.

Rather than cut his people down for poor performance, this great leader chose to lift them up toward great performance. He created an atmosphere that had absolutely no tolerance for blaming or any kind of “victim-talk.” He created an environment full of encouragement, collaboration, and personal accountability.

What was the result? In only 12 months that company harvested a $207 million improvement in profits. Today it’s a case study at the Harvard Business School.

Now, is this man some sort of flower child? Did he sing “Kumbya” and other camp songs in the employee cafeteria?

No, he’s actually one of the toughest-minded business people I’ve ever known. And he’s one of the most effective leaders I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.

Great leaders know that you can rent a person’s back and hands, but you must earn a person’s head and heart.

Great leaders know that organizations are living organisms with many interrelated elements, capable of extinction or growth.

Great leaders invest energy in growing rather than fixing.

They are gardeners. They create a nurturing environment – or culture – and they cultivate with care.

While this leadership approach is effective in business, it can also work wonders at home.

Have you ever tried to “fix” a teenager? How’d it go? Were either of you satisfied with the result?

Have you ever tried to “fix” your marriage partner? Did your attempt to be a mechanic produce a happy outcome?

None of us wants to be “fixed,” though most of us respond well to genuine, heartfelt efforts to produce an environment of love and understanding.

To be successful in building relationships at work and at home, be a gardener, not a mechanic.

Create an environment that affirms and encourages people.

Create an environment that places a premium on trust and caring.

Create an environment where blame is weeded out and people feel free to stretch and grow.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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