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:
- productively disrupting the system
- internalizing feedback
- reorienting and recalculating
- leveraging energy (generated from the disruption) to move ahead
- 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.