Lead like a Gardener

The mil­i­tary is often cit­ed as an exam­ple and blue­print for hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions. With good rea­son, because in the course of indus­tri­al­iza­tion, many com­pa­nies were indeed inspired by the orga­ni­za­tion of the mil­i­tary. And quite a num­ber of com­pa­nies are still man­aged with com­mand and order today. It is often for­got­ten that the mil­i­tary, espe­cial­ly in com­plex and ambigu­ous sit­u­a­tions — and these are becom­ing more and more — has long been rely­ing on the speed and effec­tive­ness of auton­o­my and self-organization.

The Pruss­ian gen­er­al field mar­shal Hel­muth Graf von Moltke (1800 — 1891) already rec­og­nized: “No plan sur­vives the first ene­my con­tact.” He there­fore grant­ed the sub­se­quent man­age­ment lev­els a high degree of free­dom in the exe­cu­tion of the com­bat mis­sion. He thus sig­nif­i­cant­ly shaped mis­sion-type tac­tics as the man­age­ment method of choice. The deci­sive advan­tage of it are autonomous and there­fore quick deci­sions guid­ed by a clear­ly for­mu­lat­ed mis­sion and clear bound­ary con­di­tions, while nor­mal­ly infor­ma­tion would have to move up the hier­ar­chy and com­mands slow­ly down again.

Although we intu­itive­ly know the world has changed, most lead­ers reflect a mod­el and leader devel­op­ment process that are sore­ly out of date. We often demand unre­al­is­tic lev­els of knowl­edge in lead­ers and force them into inef­fec­tive attempts to micromanage.
Stan­ley McChrystal

The tar­di­ness of cen­tral deci­sions is one thing, but the super­hu­man demands on such cen­tral deci­sion-mak­ers are anoth­er. Hier­ar­chi­cal deci­sions in our VUCA world are nei­ther effi­cient nor effec­tive. David Mar­quet also rec­og­nized this when he took over com­mand of the atom­ic sub­ma­rine USS San­ta Fe. He swore to him­self and his team not to give any more orders and thus shift­ed the author­i­ty to make a deci­sion back to where the knowl­edge, expe­ri­ence and infor­ma­tion was. Grad­u­al­ly, the USS San­ta Fe turned from the worst to the best sub­ma­rine in the US Navy and remained it even long after David Mar­quet no longer com­mand­ed it (see his book “Turn Around the Ship”; Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link).

The temp­ta­tion to lead as a chess mas­ter, con­trol­ling each move of the orga­ni­za­tion, must give way to an approach as a gar­den­er, enabling rather than direct­ing. A gar­den­ing approach to lead­er­ship is any­thing but pas­sive. The leader acts as an “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who cre­ates and main­tains an ecosys­tem in which the orga­ni­za­tion operates.
Stan­ley McChrystal

What Stan­ley McCrys­tal, who led most of the oper­a­tions of spe­cial forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2008 as com­man­der of the Joint Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand (JSOC), describes here is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing of lead­er­ship than we are used to in most tay­loris­tic hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions. Man­agers usu­al­ly act more like chess mas­ters and over­think and con­trol step by step. This is because the man­ag­er in Tay­lorism is designed just as omni­scient­ly plan­ning and con­trol­ling. In the world view of the chess mas­ter, the fig­ures are just sil­ly pup­pets and he him­self is the hero. Or in the words of the founder of Sci­en­tif­ic Management:

This work is so crude and ele­men­tary in its nature that the writer firm­ly believes that it would be pos­si­ble to train an intel­li­gent goril­la so as to become a more effi­cient pig-iron han­dler that any man can be. (…) In almost all of the mechan­ic arts the sci­ence which under­lies each work­man’s act is so great and amounts to so much that the work­man who is best suit­ed actu­al­ly to do the work is inca­pable (…) of under­stand­ing this science.
Fred­er­ick Winslow Taylor

The gar­den­ers’ approach is much more mod­est: a gar­den­er knows that he can­not pro­duce toma­toes or cucum­bers him­self. They can only cre­ate and main­tain an envi­ron­ment in which toma­toes can thrive. Nor are they the best and most effi­cient toma­toes, which is why they have become man­agers, but rather gar­den­ers. This is the dif­fer­ence between man­age­ment and lead­er­ship. And that’s what makes a dif­fer­ence today. So: Lead like a gardener!

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