The information age is driving dramatic changes in the global economy. Entire industries have rapidly evolved to keep up with shifting requirements. Although the premium on effective leadership has never been higher, today’s managers have not been as quick to reevaluate and adapt their archetypical roles to these new environments.
The wrong goal
I once imagined my future self as an all-knowing management luminary who could provide clear and effective direction to the people I was responsible for leading, even in the most complex situations. I attended training, sought mentors and read books on leadership to build my lexicon and frame my experiences in new ways. I figured that, if I could memorize and apply the lessons, then I would be several steps closer to realizing my vision.
For more than 10 years, I chased this heroic illusion while time and new responsibilities made me feel increasingly inadequate. It wasn’t just, “The more I learn, the less I know”; it was increasing access to information and the snowballing difficulty of appropriately selecting and applying seemingly endless leadership tools, processes, frameworks and maxims. Was I not working hard enough? Did I not have what it would take to be a great leader?
Eventually, I found a new leadership paradigm in U.S. Army (Ret.) General Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams, in which he describes similar struggles, albeit with much more significant responsibilities. He discusses how, at first, he was trained to be a chess master and explains the sole responsibility and need for control that goes with such a role. This analogy seems to fit the ages-old leadership wisdom: A single leader controls resources with carefully contemplated moves guided by an overarching strategy and with skills developed over time with deliberate effort.
However, the analogy quickly crumbles when put to the test of today’s environment. The ever-increasing volume of information and rising complexity will always outpace the abilities of even the most talented chess masters. That’s why McChrystal posits that, in fact, leaders must tend to the environment they play a role in creating, like gardeners. All ecosystems — gardens and businesses like — need adequate nourishment; enough space to expand; and intervention by exception, as too much direct involvement can stunt or destroy potential. Gardeners don’t presume to control the growth or prosperity of the garden.
First and foremost, leaders act as gardeners by creating and maintaining good conditions. They prune and shape their networks to sustain the amount of information and empowerment needed to keep the organization balanced. Their focus is on rhythm, transparency and cross-functional cooperation.
Each part of the team must remain tightly linked to a common strategy. The key is establishing and maintaining what McChrystal refers to as a “shared consciousness” — a set of common beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes. An associated task is figuring out how to establish and communicate meaningful themes, with the assumption that only a select few repeatedly shared messages will be heard.
Another facet of the leader-as-gardener concept is to tend to the organization by spending ample time circulating and studying the proverbial field. This doesn’t necessarily mean intervening; just observing the health of the ecosystem. These excursions serve as opportunities to better understand what is happening with team members in order to guide and to influence behavior. The simple reorientation from a leader seeking control to one seeking to tend is not only sensible, but also increasingly imperative.
The right goal
Now equipped with a new leadership aspiration, I am learning how to tend. My plan revolves around planting seeds to provoke curiosity, nurturing and defending teammates and ideas, developing keen observational abilities, more judiciously removing impediments, and celebrating growth.
Admittedly, I continue to harbor a need for control. But I have learned that it’s not about letting go as much as shifting focus and becoming comfortable with discomfort. I also have discovered that spending less energy trying to direct every outcome frees up some much-needed cognitive bandwidth and enables me to be more mindful in other ways. It is the Zen of the gardener.
Michael Morand, CPIM-F, CSCP-F, CLTD-F, is a supply chain senior manager at Johnson & Johnson and a doctoral candidate at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. He may be contacted at email@example.com.