Nurturing is an important part of leadership, including thought leadership. However, it often goes unsung. Our leadership stories praise the bold and inspirational, not the quietly supportive. Richard Olivier makes this point in his book Inspirational Leadership, which draws leadership lessons from Shakespeare’s Henry V. He describes the fifth act of the play as ‘turning the battlefield into a garden’. His argument is that this part of the story is at least as important as the story of the battle of Agincourt.

Olivier argues that leaders must be ready to inspire their people and fight for their organisation. However, they must also be ready to support and nurture growth. Like so many other aspects of life, this process is cyclical. You may not see this nurturing as your forte as a leader. However, like Henry himself, you need to embrace it, because leadership is actually astonishingly like gardening when you come right down to it.  

You can’t order growth, only nurture it or kill it stone dead

Gardeners will tell you that plants do their own thing. You cannot simply order seeds to germinate, or plants to grow, or produce flowers or fruit. Instead, you have to provide the right situation and support to enable growth to happen. Get it right, and your plants will grow. Unfortunately, get it wrong, and your seeds or plants will probably die—and the same goes for enthusiasm and trust within your organisation. 

You have to get your hands dirty at least some of the time

Gardeners need to ‘do’. They can’t simply stand back and tell plants to grow—at least, not with any success. They need to dig holes, sow seeds, water, feed and guide their seedlings and plants. Leaders also need to get their hands dirty. They have to put effort into their organisation, and not just tell people what to do. Planning and strategic thinking is part of this, but you also need to coach, communicate, encourage, and develop others.

Sow seeds and allow them time to develop

One of the complaints that many gardeners make about garden makeover programmes on TV is that they always buy in big plants. In real life, most gardeners start small. Their gardens take time to grow and develop—maybe many years. If you plant a sapling, you are making an investment for 20 years’ time. As a leader, you also need to make those investments in the future rather than just worrying about the present. Encourage people to generate their own ideas, sowing the right kinds of seeds in the process, and your organisation will thrive in the long term.

You need to provide the right conditions for growth

Good gardeners weed regularly to allow their plants space to grow. Weeds grow quickly and can rapidly take over a space. In dry periods, they also water their plants to ensure that they don’t dry out, and cover their plants if it is going to be frosty. A leader’s role is similar. They have to protect their team from harsh conditions, and ensure that they have what they need to do their jobs well and productively. Think of praise and encouragement as being like water for plants.

Be aware that everyone has their own preferred ‘conditions for growth’

Different plants have different requirements. Some like sunshine, some prefer shade. Some need damp, and others thrive in dry soils. Some seeds need to be cold before they germinate, others need soaking. If you give a plant the wrong conditions, it will not thrive. The same goes for people. We all have our own preferences for how we like to be treated. As a leader, you need to make sure that you give each individual the right conditions for their growth.

It’s important to give people room to grow, without checking up on them too often

If you pull your plants up to check their root systems, you will kill them. Putting it crudely, people are very similar. Nobody can thrive when someone is constantly checking up on them. Micromanagement will kill enthusiasm and initiative faster than almost anything else.

“Turning the battlefield into a garden”

We talked elsewhere about tree cathedrals, and especially how they demonstrate disruptive thinking. In many ways, thinking of leadership as like gardening is similarly disruptive. It’s not the big, visionary, ‘follow me!’ type leadership that is often celebrated. However, as Shakespeare’s Henry V came to realise, it can be far more important, especially in the long term.