How to Lead Like a Humble Gardener

We expect leaders to be like Napoleon, crafting brilliant strategies while looking regal on horseback. But there is a better way.


In business, as in politics and war, we too often yearn for heroic leaders. A smart book argues, instead, that leaders need to act more like humble gardeners. Stanley McChrystal and his coauthors write in Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement For A Complex World that “we unrealistically demand the apogee of heroic leadership—omniscient, fearless, virile and reassuring.” We expect leaders to be like Napoleon, crafting brilliant strategies, deftly maneuvering troops and distributing precise commands—all while looking regal on horseback. We demand high-level strategic vision and an unerring ability to anticipate broad market trends. We celebrate leaders for encyclopedic mastery of every aspect of their business and ridicule them when they do not have it. We expect all this even though we know that it is entirely unrealistic. See also: Better Way to Think About Leadership   What’s more, the authors observe, too many leaders compound the problem by trying to live up to this expectation. They strive to stay informed, to always have the right answers and deliver them with force. They construct rigid, hierarchical organizations, which they then try to control like a thousand marionettes on many stages. They fear that failure to do so reflects weakness and irrelevance. McChrystal, a retired four-star general, tells of his own temptation to view war, the ultimate real-life competition, as if it were like chess—“the ultimate strategic contest.”

Empowered with an extraordinary ability to view the board, and possessing a set of units with unique capabilities, I was tempted to maneuver my forces like chess pieces. I could be Bobby Fischer or Garry Kasparov, driving my relentlessly aggressive campaign toward checkmate… I felt intense pressure to fulfill the role of chess master for which I had spent a lifetime training.

The problem is that the chess metaphor quickly breaks down. Chess is an orderly game, with clear rules and alternating moves between players. In real life, the competition is free to move multiple pieces and pummel you on multiple fronts, without waiting respectfully for your next move. Events unfold faster and with more complexity than one person can master, or for hierarchical decision processes to monitor, assess, decide and act. The speed and connected nature of the competitive battlefields render both heroic leaders and hierarchical organizations too slow to survive. Instead of heroic leaders, McChrystal argues, we need leaders who act more like humble gardeners. Master gardeners know they do not actually “grow” tomatoes, squash or beans—they can only foster environments in which the plants do so. Similarly, leaders need to understand that competitive success cannot depend on move-by-move control. It requires consistent nurturing of the structure, process and culture of one’s organization to enable subordinate components to function with “smart autonomy.” Smart autonomy is the ability, responsibility and authority of every part of the team to take action as best it sees fit in pursuit of the overall strategy. That doesn’t mean total autonomy, however. Every part of the team must be tightly linked to common strategies and mission. They must be enabled with “shared consciousness” and have ready access to information from across the organization. See also: Best Insurance? A Leadership Pipeline Becoming a gardener, rather than a chess master, changes the role of the leader but does not diminish the need for one. McChrystal argues that leadership is more critical than ever. Here are key elements of “leading like a gardener” that he and his coauthors lay out:

  1. Shift focus from moving pieces to shaping the ecosystem
  2. Create and maintain the teamwork conditions
  3. Keep the team of teams focused on clearly articulated priorities
  4. Demand free-flowing conversation
  5. Reinforce empowered execution
  6. Lead by demonstration
  7. Keep eyes on, hands off

Whether you lead grand armies, a multi-national conglomerate or a small team, Team of Teamsis well worth putting on your summer reading list.

Chunka Mui

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Chunka Mui

Chunka Mui is the co-author of the best-selling Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance, which in 2005 the Wall Street Journal named one of the five best books on business and the Internet. He also cowrote Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the World We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050.



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