Sunday afternoons in London often find me pottering around the house doing chores and quietly getting ready for the week ahead. I know that time is moving on when BBC Radio 4 Gardener’s Question Time becomes my background listening. I have a tiny, city garden and I don’t really have green fingers, yet I am a devoted fan of the programme. The complexity of the gardening challenge totally fascinates and mostly eludes me. There is so much to learn and it is so easy to get it wrong. So I really love it when a plant thrives. Most Sundays I listen in awe as the experts reveal their hard won secrets borne of decades of serious practice.
Recently gardening took on a whole new level of meaning and significance when it emerged at the heart of compelling discussions with wise people about what effective leadership might look like. As a metaphor for exploring leadership it is very fertile ground. I’ve enjoyed thinking about how I can be a better gardener in the workplace than I am in my own backyard? What is the overall shape, plan and purpose of my work garden? How might it flourish in the face of challenge? What happens when I seek to understand how each border can best be encouraged to bloom. How can I make the most of the good light and the sunshine while protecting delicate shoots from the wind and the frost. Is it possible to make time to look for the unique combination of conditions that allow each plant to achieve its potential. Can I bask in the burgeoning produce of summer as well as do my best in the winter months when new life is quietly preparing in the dark, out of sight?
Once you start playing with this intriguing idea, its very hard to stop. In the teams I have lead I’ve enjoyed bold, showy blooms, delicate, elegant flowers, solid evergreens, rampant climbers, satisfying edible produce, sweet-smelling blossom and the occasional pernicious weed. We need them all to flourish if the garden is to succeed. The question is how do we help them each to achieve their potential as individuals while working effectively in a team to create a subtle, integrated, productive garden. Metaphorical gardening is every bit as complex as the real thing. When to feed, how to prune, what combination of plants, who needs time in the greenhouse, when to clear the weeds and prepare the soil. Both literally and conceptually this is a demanding challenge. Some things will work well, some will fail spectacularly but I’ve learned that even the plants that fail can go on the compost heap to fertilise next year’s efforts. Little is wasted. What matters is the learning from both success and failure.
The thing I love most about this way of visioning leadership is the rich language and imagery it creates for holding in tension the very biggest picture while paying attention to the very smallest detail. A series of apparently disconnected small tasks can come together to create an arc of beautiful harmony. The ephemeral, passing glory beautifully orchestrated alongside a fragrant hardy shrub. I realise looking back that the thing I have most loved in my career is spotting the truly talented colleague and seeking to understand what they need to help them achieve their potential. There are prize blooms out there in my sector that I’m truly proud of. They have long since left my garden and have flourished all by themselves once their roots grew strong. I like to think that of them as pollinating agents who are now nurturing gardens of their own.
Are you a gardener, want to join this conversation? I can’t promise you Bunny Guinness or Eric Robson (fabulous BBC Radio 4 Gardeners Question Time presenters) but I do know you’re in for a fascinating, illuminating enquiry.
Tricia King is part of Amara Gardeners