In today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, leadership is needed more than ever.
But leadership is an increasingly ambiguous or fuzzy concept that is further complicated by the profusion of definitions and theories, and the range of expectations of what leadership “should be”.
Every school leader has their own style and some tap into more than one approach or behaviour for different situations and people. They have to work hard to accommodate people’s heads, hearts and hopes.
Heroic leadership is old school and its time to change the paradigm to fit the times.
As a leader you are in the growing business and in that sense, you are like a gardener as you are helping people reach their potential through cultivating their strengths.
I first read about a ‘green-fingered’ and organic type of leadership through Leaders: Myths and Reality by General Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal says that the gardener is a leader who cultivates, nurtures, and develops. Just as a garden does not require the gardener’s constant presence, neither do teachers. They become robust, resilient and radiant thanks to the environment that they create. But they still need caring for.
The gardener plants people in an environment conducive to their growth and that entails putting plenty of practical hours into the job and spending considerable time weeding, cultivating, planting seeds and tending. They know that roots are important.
Successful gardeners also need reliable tools and so they use customisable diagnostic services and solutions (e.g., intelligent data software) to analyse their strengths and vulnerabilities to address root causes.
The gardener metaphor for leadership is useful to describe agile and thoughtful servant leadership where consistent care and attention to people and relationships are vital in a school environment.
I think Moyra Mackie (2018) says it best when she says that leaders need to make sure they provide appropriate amounts of space, water, light and warmth. She says gardeners focus on:
- Space – delegate more and give people opportunities and room to grow and take responsibility
- Water – nourish people through regular, constructive feedback
- Light and warmth – provide a supportive environment where achievement is recognised.
Oloruntoba (2021) echoes that and says that the best leaders adapt according to the conditions they find themselves in, “If it's sunny, they provide cover. If it's windy, they provide a shield. If it's rainy, they provide drainage and if it's dry, they provide water.”
Organic gardener leaders protect and shield their staff.
What this means is being knowledgeable about your plants (staff) and knowing what it is that will help them to flourish.
Prize-winning roses don’t just magically appear, they need someone to expend effort on them and there’s a lot of work that goes into raising a high-performing team with constant tweaking and improving.
Choosing the plants
Gardeners select the best crops for the environment, plant and cultivate. This includes pruning, shaping and harvesting. Some plants fair better indoors than others and so you need to select them very carefully.
In the same way, selecting who is on your team and what they do for the school garden is crucial.
You pick the seeds and plants that will yield the crop you want and as a leader you should choose team members who can work well together. You grow what you sow.
The gardener–leader recruits teachers suited to the school, and nurtures them to grow by giving them the conditions necessary to meet the goals of the school.
Steve Wood (2016) says, “Like plants, having team members who contribute more to the nutrient value of the culture (garden) than they extract, makes the culture (garden) more healthy and sustainable.”
Easier said than done of course if your school has a few toxic staff as they are going to mess with the soil.
Gardener-leaders also know that if the environment is good for seeds, it can also be good for weeds and they need attending to.
So, leaders need to weed out negativity, cultivate talent and nurture those who need it. They need to be out in the fields, transplanting and dead-heading, not cloistered in an office administrating.
Tending the plants is the most important part of a gardener’s job. School leaders therefore need to pay attention to each of their plants, be vigilant for any signs of distress and then act to make the plant healthy again.
Every gardener should spend time with each staff member, help them grow and develop and give them the resources and support they need.
Leaders should focus on providing an ongoing stream of nourishment. All living things, whether plants or people, thrive when we tend to them.
At the end of the day, there is only so much you can do, even if you are a dedicated gardener with green fingers. As Kevin Eikenberry (2011) says, “While gardeners put much time, effort and love into caring for their plants, in the end they know that the final results aren’t completely in their control. Gardeners do their work hopefully and consistently and put the balance into the hands of nature. So too, the best leaders work to support and help those they are leading and coaching, and in the end their efforts will still ultimately be determined by the performer themselves.”
Gardener-leaders understand that failure is inevitable, even with intense focus and intervention on a plant (staff member), so they learn from their failure, adjust and try something new.
Gardener-leaders appreciate that they are going to get scratches along the way because there is “No rose is without thorns” and they know to enjoy the blossom they have, they must learn to deal with the thorns.
25 things gardener-leaders do
- Prepare the ground
- Get their hands dirty preparing the way
- Promote a growth-centric culture
- Plant seeds of confidence, trust and respect
- Know that a small seed can make a big difference
- Know that you sow the seed, not the finished article
- Create positive conditions
- Know how to experiment
- Look for growth
- Get excited by progress
- Know that growth takes time
- Recognise that every plant and every human are different from each other
- Know that not everything grows at the same rate
- Nurture talent
- Know their plants (staff)
- Look out for signs of distress
- Remove the weeds
- Know that growth requires sufficient room
- See people in a new light
- Watch how the whole garden grows (the whole team)
- Keep watering, keep encouraging
- Know that growth requires re-potting
- Understand that failure happens and not everything grows
- Limit interference and know that “Grass does not grow faster if you pull it”
- Know their work is never done and there is always work to do!
Leadership doesn’t mean that you go round the school trying to ‘fix’ things like a mechanic - people aren’t machines and the school is a living organism (Duncan, 2019). Leaders who are gardeners create a school environment that encourages growth with light, nourishment and with sufficient space where people can breathe, grow and expand.
Effective leaders know that in the right conditions, people learn, grow, change and thrive. They see their school as a living ecosystem with many interconnected parts capable of extinction or growth.
As Lloyd (2021) says, “if you want to make a sustainable change at work, you are more likely to succeed if you approach your change as a gardener.”
It’s time to get out the watering can!
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is Eteach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.