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  • Writer's pictureAmy and Aslak

Three lessons on how leaders can learn from nature

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

Illustration of a tomato plant with roots and flowering.

Every week, we hold a team ‘Theory Thursday’. It’s a chance to catch up and work around a theme or theoretical framework relating to the work TFP does. It's just an hour, but in every single one of those Theory Thursdays, we inevitably strike gold.

In a conversation about the challenges of being a leader working with organisational culture and the struggle to help release the full potential of individuals, Ben said it made him think of his garden:

“It is not the plant itself we treat if we want to see growth; it is the soil".

It’s such a simple statement, but holds so much truth. The common trend in modern-day leadership style is the focus on the personal mindset of the individual. In order to promote learning, growth and development, we need to think sustainably. After all, asking a seed to grow into a fruitful plant without providing nourishing soil, adequate water and the correct environment doesn’t lead to success – so if you want to lead a truly healthy team, you must give them what they need to thrive.

As a leader, if you’re seeking meaningful change but only focusing your energy on the mindset and behaviour of the individual employee as the problem, you’re missing a large part of the picture. You’re responsible for making broader changes within the organisation to best serve those in your teams, so your mindset and behaviour is supported in a way that leads naturally to healthy growth in all areas.

Cloudy to sunny illustration

Be an all-weather leader

As a leader, it’s necessary to look beyond the next quarter if you want your teams to grow and flourish for the long-term. To create a working environment where team members reach their full potential, you need to see it out. Give back to the company in a meaningful way by first investing in that environment over time and in a way that nourishes and supports the desired behaviours and mindsets in the organisation.

Ask any passionate gardener and they’ll tell you that only gardening when the sun shines won’t cut it. To see abundant growth in spring and summer, you need to prepare during the harsh winter months. It’s hard and muddy work, completely unglamorous and can sometimes feel futile but to create a foundation for the plants to thrive, you must invest time and resources. And therein lies lesson one.

Illustration of an insect, seeds and flowers with arrows between

The benefit of good companions

There are two points to be made here:

1) When you’re looking at issues with the behaviour and mindset of an individual in your team, how often do you take a step back and look at the broader environment you’re asking them to work in? It’s important to remember people act in relation to other people, their life situation and circumstances. Only focusing on that individual and how you can support them is an oversimplification. What other changes could you make? How can you add elements that will support your employees, or are there any that would benefit your employees if they were adjusted or removed?

Just like nature, there’s nothing more disheartening than seeing your crops grow and flourish in the garden, only to discover they’ve been attacked by pests. One of the best things a gardener can do to protect their plants from slugs or caterpillars is companion planting.

Here’s an example:

• Blackfly aphids eat broad beans

• Ladybirds eat blackfly aphids

• Marigolds attract ladybirds

So if you want to protect your broad bean crop from blackfly aphids, simply plant marigolds close by.

Likewise, if you want to stop unhelpful ‘underground conversations’, holding regular informal catch-ups could create an environment that develops trust and enables real conversations to happen.

2) When we look at our organisations, we can see that diversity in perspectives, life stories, professional backgrounds, gender, ethnicity and so on, can reinforce more innovative ideas and a higher degree of flexibility and agility for the organisation. This diversity must be consciously invested in if you want to benefit in this way, and all voices must be actively heard.

Similarly, the implicit function of companion planting is to increase biodiversity, and by doing that to build resilience which strengthens the garden as a system and requires less intervention from the gardener.

Illustration of a group of people looking confused working together

All individuals are not the same

Applying a ‘one size fits all’ approach when you’re working with a complex mix of histories, life situations, personalities and working styles won’t work in this instance.

If you want team members to feel truly valued, and therefore committed to your organisation, you must consider their needs and preferences within the workplace culture, and how the individual is interconnected with the organisation as a whole. If a member of your team says ‘this isn’t working for me’, it’s your responsibility to ask questions, listen and respond.

Just like you cannot force a plant to flourish without the right conditions. Some plants require full sun, others mostly shade. Some need to be frequently drenched, and others only watered when they start to slightly wilt. How can one gardener possibly know the needs of all the different plants they care for? They research, learn and practice just like a leader. They adjust the environment to suit the needs of the plants they’re tending.

Finally, we’ll leave you with this very apt quote from landscape designer and author, Jan Johnsen:

“A garden is a reflection of the quality of its soil. Gardens filled with beautiful soil have a vitality about them that we can almost feel.”

Do you want your organisation to have growth and vitality? If so, it’s time to get your hands dirty. We’d love to know what you think of our lessons for growing a healthy team and if you found them useful. Please message Aslak on LinkedIn or email Amy:

And if you’d like us to lead your next meeting and see your team bloom, book a call with TFP.

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