Lead like a Gardener

The military is often cited as an example and blueprint for hierarchical organizations. With good reason, because in the course of industrialization, many companies were indeed inspired by the organization of the military. And quite a number of companies are still managed with command and order today. It is often forgotten that the military, especially in complex and ambiguous situations – and these are becoming more and more – has long been relying on the speed and effectiveness of autonomy and self-organization.

The Prussian general field marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke (1800 – 1891) already recognized: “No plan survives the first enemy contact.” He therefore granted the subsequent management levels a high degree of freedom in the execution of the combat mission. He thus significantly shaped mission-type tactics as the management method of choice. The decisive advantage of it are autonomous and therefore quick decisions guided by a clearly formulated mission and clear boundary conditions, while normally information would have to move up the hierarchy and commands slowly down again.

Although we intuitively know the world has changed, most leaders reflect a model and leader development process that are sorely out of date. We often demand unrealistic levels of knowledge in leaders and force them into ineffective attempts to micromanage.
Stanley McChrystal

The tardiness of central decisions is one thing, but the superhuman demands on such central decision-makers are another. Hierarchical decisions in our VUCA world are neither efficient nor effective. David Marquet also recognized this when he took over command of the atomic submarine USS Santa Fe. He swore to himself and his team not to give any more orders and thus shifted the authority to make a decision back to where the knowledge, experience and information was. Gradually, the USS Santa Fe turned from the worst to the best submarine in the US Navy and remained it even long after David Marquet no longer commanded it (see his book “Turn Around the Ship”; Amazon Affiliate-Link).

The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.
Stanley McChrystal

What Stanley McCrystal, who led most of the operations of special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2008 as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), describes here is a completely different understanding of leadership than we are used to in most tayloristic hierarchical organizations. Managers usually act more like chess masters and overthink and control step by step. This is because the manager in Taylorism is designed just as omnisciently planning and controlling. In the world view of the chess master, the figures are just silly puppets and he himself is the hero. Or in the words of the founder of Scientific Management:

This work is so crude and elementary in its nature that the writer firmly believes that it would be possible to train an intelligent gorilla so as to become a more efficient pig-iron handler that any man can be. (…) In almost all of the mechanic arts the science which underlies each workman’s act is so great and amounts to so much that the workman who is best suited actually to do the work is incapable (…) of understanding this science.
Frederick Winslow Taylor

The gardeners’ approach is much more modest: a gardener knows that he cannot produce tomatoes or cucumbers himself. They can only create and maintain an environment in which tomatoes can thrive. Nor are they the best and most efficient tomatoes, which is why they have become managers, but rather gardeners. This is the difference between management and leadership. And that’s what makes a difference today. So: Lead like a gardener!

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