Category Archives: Organizations

Heroic Leader or humble gardener?

Serendipity…that is only way I can explain it. How else can you describe Joi Ito and General Stanley McChrystal both saying that being a leader in the 21st century is more like being a gardener?  I was finishing “Team of Teams – New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World” and starting “Whiplash – How to Survive our Faster Future” and the analogy of “leader as gardener” is prominent in both. I was not shocked to read it from Joi Ito as the Director of the MIT Media Lab but I was somewhat surprised to see that General McChrystal, a retired four-start general whose last assignment was commander of all American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, embrace the idea.

I think what led them both to this concept was their understanding that we work and live in ecosystems and the very nature of an ecosystems makes the “command & control” theory of leadership obsolete. (If you are interested, you can read what Harvard Magazine, Forbes and Accenture all have to say about business ecosystems.)

Following is what General McChrystal wrote about the challenge inherent in addressing a new paradigm and I think it will resonate with many of us.

“Although I recognized its necessity, the mental transition from heroic leader to humble gardener was not a comfortable one.  From the first day at West Point I’d been trained to develop personal expectations and behaviors that reflected professional competence, decisiveness, and self-confidence.  If adequately informed, I expected myself to have the right answers and deliver them to my force with assurance.  Failure to do that would reflect weakness and invite doubts about my relevance.  I felt intense pressure to fulfill my role of chess master for which I had spent a lifetime preparing.”

I think Joi Ito’s transition was a bit smoother due to his background but here is how he described it.

“In fact, in many ways, the word leading probably invoked the wrong image, since we often think of our leaders as having a tremendous amount of control and direct power.  Leading the Media Lab is more like being a gardener than being a CEO – watering the plants, tending to the compost, trimming hedges, and getting out of the way so that the explosion of creativity and life of all of the plants and wildlife in the garden are allowed to flourish….We have to become comfortable with the idea that we are not in control, that we can’t anticipate or even know everything that is going on, but we can still be confident and courageous. This allows us to embrace a diversity in thinking, approach, and timescales, and not force everything to be over-synchronized.”

These thoughts on leadership are not a stretch for me because I have long believed that the act of leading is like farming (gardening on a larger scale I guess) for the following reasons:

  • Control and ownership – You don’t really “own” the land as much as you work symbiotically with it to produce a result.  The only one in control is nature as many of the variables are far outside of your control and you can only develop a plan and contingencies but what actually happens is well beyond your ability to control.  It is much more about stewardship that anything.  You are entrusted with resources and the goal is to care for it while you are there and leave it better than you found it upon your departure.
  • Preparation & perseverance are key – There is definitely a cycle you follow and you have to be ready when the weather breaks and then you work till the work is done.  Your timeline really does not matter because the crops are ready when they are ready and not when you have the time to take care of them.  Prepping the soil, planting, fertilizing, and harvesting happen when all of the conditions are right and not before or after regardless of what you might have going on.  Also, once the works starts there is no stopping until the task is done…that’s why there are headlights on tractors.
  • Nature & nurture – It is obvious early on that you need to be aware and understanding of the “signs” that nature gives you if you are to be successful.  If you are aware, you can develop an understanding of the natural process and also accept that it happens on its own schedule without regard for your needs and wants.  That does not mean you can abdicate your responsibilities.  It means that you sense when opportunities arise and you continue to nurture the crops in an effort to produce the best possible outcome.  Nurturing is delicate work because you must strike the balance between ignoring and smothering.
  • Doing all the right things but still failing – There is nothing more frustrating than knowing you have the right things on the list and checking them all off…and still failing!  This is the ultimate lesson because it is when the universe lets you know that there is a master plan and you are not the master planner.  This is also when you finally realize that you cannot “make” anything happen and sometimes the harder you try to worse it gets.

I could not agree more with General McChrystal and Mr. Ito.  The interconnectedness we experience today will only continue to increase so we have to develop the skills that will enable us to succeed in an ever widening ecosystem and these are not the industrial age management and leadership skills we still see employed today.  Ecosystem leadership skills will be:

  1. productively disrupting the system
  2. internalizing feedback
  3. reorienting and recalculating
  4. leveraging energy (generated from the disruption) to move ahead
  5. rinsing and repeating

Question:  Are you ready to transform from “heroic leader” to “humble gardener”?

Answer:  It doesn’t matter because the ecosystem is not waiting on you because you are not in control.




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Filed under Emergence, Leadership, Looking in the mirror, Organizations

Starbucks Tribal Knowledge

This is an insightful presentation from a marketing standpoint but it is also a great opportunity for analysis from a strategic perspective.  This was posted on linkedin about 2 years ago so given what we know about Starbucks recent challenges, what can we glean from this?  

Thoughts anyone?

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Filed under Adaptation, Organizations

Growing a Brand. Growing a Team.

This is a terrific perspective on what how things “grow”.  It is an insightful approach to view it through the lens of nature and take the viewpoint that any organism/organization has to be healthy in order to grow.  I think it is a return to these types of fundamental principles that will enable us to be successful in this complex and challenging times.

Our focus should be on simplifying our efforts and trying to make them more complex.  We should try to develop wisdom, not intelligence.  Once we begin to widen our field of vision and learn from unexpected sources, we may find business (and life) is not as hard as we make it.  We have to accept that there are natural ebbs and flows and that, try as we might, we cannot control our environment.  Our best bet is to develop the ability to adapt and take advantage of change instead of constantly fighting the current.


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Filed under Leadership, Marketing, Organizations, Strategy

don’t confuse process with progress

This was a catch phrase with a company I once worked for and I also think it has application in our efforts to build a personal brand.  There are so many things we do each day and, after while,  they can begin to seem a routine.  We blog, connect on linkedin, twitter, facebook, and countless other things but is performing these acts moving us closer to our goal?  I will be the first to tell you that I certainly do not know but I have suspicion they do not not.  I am in the process of internal debate on the issue of strategic planning vs. black swans vs. self  organizing systems and, depending on where you fall in that spectrum, the answer could be vastly different for you as well.

I believe there is tremendous value in doing many of the aforementioned items to build the brand of you and continue to develop your prosperity plexus.  At the same time, if we begin to imagine that that activities somehow represent success or attainment of our goals, then I think we have a problem.  I have seen a number of people who tout their network and their main skill seems to be just that.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a believer in the need for self-promotion but there has to be something to promote.  First and foremost there must be something of value to promote.  I know people are valuable but in an economic marketplace, there must be more.  I have been involved with networks of people and they continue to interact with one another and bring others in who are similar but the network never grows.  It is almost as if their focus becomes the connecting instead of the connecting being an avenue to distribute content.  

I do believe we all need to continue to build our networks but also believe we need to do it judiciously and with consideration for those we connect with.  Here are a few questions to think about:

  • What value do you bring to people?
  • How can engage with them?
  • Can you help them in some way?
  • Can you connect them with someone who can?
  • Do you spend most of your time talking or listening?
  • Do you strengthen your network through diversity?
  • Are you building relationships or adding contacts?

In the end, the value of our lives will be equal to the sum total of the value we have brought to others’ lives.  The kicker is that it will be those we connected with a deeper level than dollars and cents.  When we are gone from this earth, our legacy will be determined by how we are remembered by our friends and how you impacted them.  The question you have to ask is, “Have you been taking the time to add value to others’ lives?”

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Filed under Organizations, Strategy, Thinking about thinking

It takes courage to change course

As we continue to see the new administration struggle with its cabinet members being confirmed, resigning, stepping down, or being eviscerated in the media, we would do well to remember that around 145 years ago another President had a similar experience with those he appointed to lead the Union Army.  

President Lincoln went through no less than 6 different generals in 4 years during the Civil War (McClellan, Hooker, Burnside, Halleck, Meade, and Grant).  Talk about challenging!  He did much any President (or leader) would do; he selected the person he thought had the best chance of success at that time.  Once he saw that this was not the case, he made changes.  Interestingly enough, he did not make these changes quickly (to the chagrin of his Cabinet).  He often tried to mentor his generals before casting them aside.  At the end of day, he (like all leaders) realized that the ultimate decision rested with him.  While it is never fun to admit a mistake, I think leaders should be willing and able to stand up and take responsibility for a new direction if it is merited.  We certainly cannot change direction anytime the wind changes but if we receive incontrovertible  evidence, we must act.

Several years ago Jack Welch wrote an op-ed piece in the WSJ talking about the courage needed to change your mind when you are the leader.  He pointed out that it is easy to simply follow the directives you give regardless of the results and pretend that things are going fine but that is not the leader’s job.  

Personally, I think we often mistake a leader changing their mind with confusion or indecisiveness.  This could not be farther from the truth.  I think we should demand that our leaders constantly re-evaluate their positions based on current data.  I am not a proponent of continuous change for the sake of change but I am a supporter of continuous improvement.  
I think F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. “

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Filed under Leadership, Looking in the mirror, Organizations, Real Life, Thinking about thinking

The 3 C’s of business success

My wife is amazing!  First of all, let’s set the stage.  She is a very smart and capable lady who single-handedly runs our family as well as her own business.  She did not attend college and has no formal business training outside of 8+ years in property management…yet she has a thriving retail business that is doing 15% better this year despite the less than stellar economic environment.  What is most amazing her success is that she has done it all by herself one step at a time.  She did not have a “masterplan” when she started out.  She had never worked in, let alone managed, a retail store yet away she went.  There is an entirely separate story about how this all came to be that would astound you as well but that is for another time.  While there are many reasons she shouldn’t be successful, the fact remains she is. 

When I speak to students in the MBA classes I teach, the one thing I always stress to them is that their education should enable them to simplify the complex, not vice versa.  Lisa (my lovely wife) has been able to do just this.  In thinking about her continuing success, I concluded that there was a formula to her success and it consisted of the 3 C’s

  • Common Sense  – there are no secret rules of success…if it does not feel right, don’t do it
  • Connection – she connects to her business…she is her business.  her shop is an extension of her so there is very little work to be done.  decisions are easy
  • Caring – she goes the extra step because she cares about her customers.  she genuinely wants them to feel as good as she does when she walks into the store.  she wants it to be a place where they can escape for an hour or two and relax (and buy stuff).


Not only has the brick and mortar business been successful but she also re-named the business, created her own e-commerce site, writes a blog, sends a monthly e-newsletter, and just today developed a terrific and funny marketing effort around her efforts to recycle.  If you want to experience this first-hand, you will have to order something from her e-commerce site and have it shipped to you.

The more we learn, the more we believe things are complicated.  I think we do this to somehow rationalize the efforts and costs associated with the education.  Candidly, business is simple just not easy and we shouldn’t lose sight of that!  Thanks for reminding us Lisa…

You can experience Lisa’s genius at

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Filed under Adaptation, Leadership, Organizations, Small(er) Business, Strategy