Leadership Guide

Be a Gardener, Not a Mechanic - Guest Blog


What if you could sit down with a group of the top leaders in the world and just listen and learn. What an honor to soak up all of their ideas and experiences. You can! The new book LeaderSHOP by Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan offers incredible insights on the workplace, career, and real life advice from some of the top leaders around. Here is a guest blog from this new gem!

By Rodger Dean Duncan

A first tendency of many business people is to fix things. After all, they’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? Not many. We may be open to persuasion or influence, but we 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 cannot 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. They 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 CEO of an organization that had lost $156 million the previous year. He was brought in from the outside to turn the company around.

On his third day on the job he went out into the employee parking lot behind the headquarters building. There was a row of “privileged” parking spots closest to the building. In front of each parking space was a sign with the name of a senior executive. The CEO took a can of spray paint and sprayed over each name. He knew that many employees were looking out their office windows, likely wondering what the CEO was up to.

After spray-painting over all the signs, the CEO went inside and got on the building intercom. He said he felt like the high school principal making morning announcements.

He began with something like this:

“Some of you saw me spray over the names of our executives in the parking lot. You may be wondering, ‘Is he firing the executives?’ No, I’m not firing 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 … 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 will each of us do to make our team stronger and build our business.” Then he said: “Thanks a lot. Have a great day.”

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

He did 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 marketplace 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 past poor performance, this great leader chose to lift them up toward future 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.

So what was the result? In only 12 months that company harvested a $207 million improvement in profits. It’s now a case study at the Harvard Business School.

Now, was this guy 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.

Be a gardener, not a mechanic. Don’t try to “fix” people. Create an environment that affirms and encourages people. An environment that places a premium on solving problems and getting results. An environment where blame is weeded out and people feel free to stretch and grow and produce.

Is this just warm and fuzzy, touchy-feely stuff for “soft” people? Not at all.

It’s the key to the hard realities of high performance in a tough and fast-moving world.

Believe it. Practice it. It makes all the difference.

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of LeaderSHOP: Workplace, Career, and Life Advice From Today’s Top Thought Leaders. Early in his career he served as advisor to cabinet officers in two White House administrations and headed global communications at Campbell Soup Company. He has coached senior leaders in dozens of Fortune 500 companies.

Do You Have a Leadership Voice Yet?

One of the best leadership books that I have read this year is a new book by Paul N. Larsen. Find Your Voice as a Leader is a no nonsense leadership guide that speaks directly to the reader, not to the academics. Paul's book offers real life leadership scenarios and offers us guides that offer up thought provoking questions and plans that you can put into place every day. Although I already read this book, I am reading it again and employing Paul's advice in setting some personal leadership goals. 

I am an avid reader and champion of leading and empowering people. I want more in a book than just ideas. I want advice and guidance on how to strengthen my own leadership and put me on the path to having an impact on others in my own way.

I encourage you to pick up Paul's book and begin your own journey to stronger leadership. Leadership should be steady and influential. Leadership is not having the loudest voice in the room but building relationships and finding other ways to flex your leadership muscle. Below is a guest post from Paul Larsen to jump start your journey to using your voice to be a stable and flexible leader.

Best Practices To Be Influential And Not Invisible

Cultivate an extensive and respected network. Networking may be a catch phrase from the 1980s, but the concept is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. No one person has all the answers or all the ideas, no matter how intelligent they are. Sharing ideas and goals with others is key to being an effective and influential leader.

Sell ideas and enroll support. Even the best ideas will languish if you’re the only one who supports them. An influential leader needs to also be a good salesperson—to garner support from management, investors, team members, and the community. If you sell your ideas persuasively, others will get on board with your vision.

Identify and remove obstacles to the team’s success. Lead as a facilitator. Another essential part of being an influential leader is clearing away any potential obstacles to success before they can get in the way of your team’s efforts and the successful realization of your vision. These obstacles might be funding issues, personality conflicts, or logistic problems. Removing these roadblocks early means your team can sail right through the project without losing momentum over unrelated issues. Entrepreneur magazine refers to breaking down barriers between team members and leaders as being crucial to leadership success.

Be flexible in your leadership style. The best—and most successful—leaders know how to adjust their style to fit the needs of diverse individuals and teams. One of the most influential leaders I’ve ever met was an airline pilot. As captain of a modern jetliner (and father to this author), he possessed the “position and title of a leader.” But he didn’t lead using his “rank” or his ego. He would treat all his airline colleagues as one cohesive team whose purpose was to fly the passengers to their destination as safely and as comfortably as possible. He regarded all the team members with respect and trusted they would be accountable for carrying out their specific job responsibilities. He believed each individual knew best how to perform his/ her unique role, and collectively they comprised a team that was focused and committed. He would listen to their insights and feedback with a genuine spirit of collaboration before any important decision was made concerning the operation of the aircraft and the carrying of its passengers. Thus, he was viewed as a trusted and respected leader, in the air and on the ground and was missed greatly when he retired after 30 years of flying. Adjusting your leadership style to fit all situations and personalities is essential to influencing your team members to produce successful results. And then watch them fly!

As a successful leader you need to be more than just knowledgeable. You need to be able to influence team members, management, and those in the community—to accomplish your vision. Improve your influence by networking well, establishing trusting relationships, clearing obstacles, and being adaptable to your environment.
Paul N. Larsen, MA, CPPC, is a Certified Professional Performance Coach and an experienced leadership consultant and speaker. He has over 30 years’ business experience with executive and senior-level responsibilities within small and large companies, including being the Chief Human Resources Officer for a $3 billion organization. Paul partners with industry-wide leaders and teams from Fortune 100, start-up, and high-tech environments to find their unique leadership “VOICE” and create compelling and purposeful outcomes for their organizations. He has a proven track record with organizations such as SAP, Electronic Arts Twitter, and Walmart.  Read more about Paul and his latest book, Finding Your VOICE as a Leader at  www.paulnlarsen.com.