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Leadership Development

Leaders Are Weeders, Part I

Why keeping weeding front of mind might help us on multiple levels

World class business coach, writer, speaker, and all around good guy Verne Harnish regularly reminds anyone who will listen that, “Leaders are Readers.” I agree. My life, as you likely know, revolves around books. Today, though, I want to expand on Verne’s wise statement with a bit of wordplay and some real life lessons that have been hugely helpful for me in my own work.

Leaders, I’ve started to realize, aren’t just readers. Leaders are weeders. 

You read that right. Leaders are mindfully, intentionally, taking the time for some of the work that every local organic farmer and gardener does daily. I’m talking about the act of pulling pesky weeds out of gardens. My theory is that we as leaders can benefit big time from learning more about weeding. The more regularly and the more wisely we weed, the more good things are likely to grow in our lives, our business, on our farms, and in our families. If we want to help create healthy organizational ecosystems (per the drawing above), then this daily activity is essential. It’s slow, unglamorous work that ultimately can pay big benefits. Permaculture gardener and author Toby Hemenway says, “Nature has a patience that humans lack.” I would suggest that a regimen of daily weeding, both in real life and in the metaphorical ecosystems of our organizations, can help us learn patience—and a well-paced natural effectiveness—of our own.

My passion for weeding is a great example of how beliefs can shift over time. Back when I was in high school, you’d have been hard pressed to find much that I disliked more than weeding. I was “forced” by family “rules” to weed the lawn weekly. In hindsight, it was hardly a big deal, but at the time it felt something akin to what I imagined (wholly inaccurately, obviously) forced labor would be like in Siberia. Of course, I had no context. I knew nothing about plants. I had no love for good gardening. I didn’t cook. The work was without purpose; it was joyless and anything but an artistic act. It was just . . . big eye roll . . . weeding—work whose point seemed to be to preserve some sort of homogenous, superficial perception of suburban tidiness. 

Today, as you can tell, I’m at the other end of the continuum. I’m here to recommend that weeding is something we might well want to keep front of mind, both in practical terms and metaphorically as well, something we can and should do at least a little of every day. In fact, I’ve spent so much time thinking and working on the idea that I’ve ended up splitting this piece in two—the second half of “Leaders are Weeders” can be found here.

What got me going on weeding? Living with a farmer had a lot to do with it—weeds are a real and regular part of [my partner] Tammie’s daily routine. She knows that she needs to manage them well. And she knows that she’ll never really be rid of them. I also began thinking about weeds while I was working on Part 4, The Power of Beliefs in Business. As I studied beliefs, I began to imagine them as the root system of our lives. While we can’t generally “see” our beliefs (and we’re often not even conscious of having them), the reality is that all our actions are based on what we believe. Same goes in the garden. Everything that comes up above ground is 100 percent correlated with the roots below the surface. The longer and more strongly we hold a belief, the deeper the roots are likely to go.

I started to think, too, about beliefs in three broad categories. Positive beliefs, neutral beliefs, and negative beliefs. You don’t have to be a farmer to figure out what sort of outcomes each of those three types of beliefs will beget. Positive beliefs lead to positive outcomes—flowers, plants like Tammie is growing on her farm. Neutral beliefs don’t do much of anything—the land lies fallow. Negative beliefs will lead to negative outcomes. You got it. Weeds. The organizational culture, I began to consider, was like the soil in which the roots were growing. Healthier soil, healthier plants; healthier culture, healthier people. 

This is not to say a the Pollyanna-ish approach is proper—clearly there are big problems to work through in the world, and we have plenty of our own here in the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.  We all have much to improve on. But what I’ve learned is that we can have positive beliefs about a problem—like, “It’s gonna be a good bit of work, but we can fix this.” Or negative beliefs about the same problem “There’s nothing we can do; we’re stuck with the status quo.” If you think of negative beliefs in the ecosystem of our organizations, it’s pretty quickly clear if you follow the metaphor through that negative beliefs become the equivalent of weeds. A preponderance of negative beliefs means that weeds will dominate. And most everything we know about weeds in the real world, it turns out, also works in the metaphorical organizational ecosystem as well. 

So just to restate:

Beliefs = “roots”

Positive beliefs lead to “desirable plants”

Negative beliefs lead to “weeds”

Culture = “soil”

For context, the weeding I’m writing about here is the total opposite of the mindless, task fulfillment I was assigned to do as a kid. Rather, it’s a conscious, meaningful and intentional act of care and love.  When this work is done well, I guarantee, we will learn a lot. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that, “The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness.”  And, I’ll add, the willingness to do the work at hand.  With all that in mind I came up with 18 ways that we can put weeding—figuratively and literally—to work, at work. The first half is here. The back nine can he found here

1. Weeding works better when we do it daily. Every farmer knows, frequent weeding is the way to go. When we do it daily we catch the weeds while they’re still small. The roots are shallow.  It takes two seconds and almost no effort to extract them from the soil. If we wait a month or two and try to pull the same weeds, it’s notably harder.  Wait a couple years and it will be downright difficult to get them out. After five years, the roots can be so deep that they may require a shovel. The same, I’ve realized, is true with beliefs. Which is a big reason why leaders need to be regular weeders—when we’re doing our work well, we’re regularly pulling new shoots of negative beliefs/weeds that might have popped out of our cultural “soil” before they become more difficult to do away with. What kind of “weeds’ would we want to pull?  It might be an unconstructively expressed negative belief about the business. Or a similarly unproductive complaint about customers, co-workers, or vendors. It could be gossip or cynicism. Or overly dramatic exclamations.

Here’s an example of good work by one of our leaders, acting as an attentive pro-active weeder. I pulled this out of some nightly shift notes and removed the names to protect everyone involved. 

“There were several negative comments made tonight about an issue we’re having at closing time. I spoke with all the guilty parties immediately. X apologized to Y, and A said he was just muttering underneath his breath and was not directing his critical comments to B. Please CITM [Coach in the Moment] and follow up as necessary with this type of behavior. We have a lot of new staff starting and the last thing they need are senior staff making negative remarks to them for simply doing their jobs.”

What’s so great about this? It was quick. It was direct. There’s no drama. There was very little time lag between the event and the follow through. The weeds popped up and within a few hours, they were already being plucked from the organizational soil.

Our metaphorical “weeding” here at Zingerman’s would also include quickly “pulling” small negative comments about race, gender, sexuality, religion, age, etc. Racism, anti-Semitism, sexism . . . these are negative beliefs that we do not want in our organizational ecosystem. Small comments that support negative stereotypes happen all around us every day. In jokes, in word choices, in eye rolls or body language. I’m not suggesting we react with anger. To the contrary, leading firmly and fairly with kindness and the spirit of generosity —to gently pull the newly appeared weed—will help us reach folks who would likely shut down if we attack them in anger. 

I remind myself regularly in this context that in nature, big plants NEVER start big—they always begin as seeds then later start to turn into small sprouts. If we let them go for months and years they get bigger and bigger and harder to pull. Eventually, left to grow as they want, they will take over our ecosystem. 

2. If you clip weeds at the surface line, they’ll probably just grow back. This is true with plants in the garden and also with beliefs and behavior at work. We can’t make anyone alter their beliefs. But it’s still helpful to be mindful of the role beliefs are playing. Under pressure, most of us will abandon what others have told us we “should” believe and revert back to what we really believe. Remember, everyone we hire arrives with a lifetime of long-growing beliefs, which will not dissolve in a day of training. Ultimately though, our improvement efforts will be most effective if we can gently and respectfully get folks to alter their beliefs and get those mental “weeds” out by the roots, lest they grow back even stronger than before. Weeding reminds me that this, too, is best done slowly, gently, and respectfully. 

3. Don’t leave weeds you’ve pulled laying around. Here’s a rookie mistake I made in real life. Weeds pulled out of the soil, but left lying on the land, will often just re-root and grow back. It’s the same at work. If we “weed” well in the moment but leave the “weeds” to lie around in the organizational culture, the roots will just probably regenerate. 

4. Beware the weeds that blow in from the neighbor’s land. Our organizational ecosystems don’t exist in a vacuum. Which means that winds will regularly blow weed seeds in from elsewhere when staff members watch the news, spend time on social media, hear things from friends, etc. Farmers fight this by putting in windbreaks. Which made me wonder what the organizational equivalent would be? I’ll suggest here that steady flows of positive information, well-aligned with our values, can help. A lot of appreciation and generosity can also help. 

5. Load up on lots of positive plants. One of the best ways to push back weeds is to fill our farms with an abundance of the healthy plants of the sort we really want. There will always be weeds—wherever there’s disturbed, open soil, they’re a natural response. The same is true in business too. There will always be some dissatisfaction. When there’s an absence of positive leadership presence, weeds will often fill the void. Our work isn’t to completely eliminate them. It’s to build enough health that the frustration is peripheral. If the only attention we give is to those who complain we’ll get more complaints. Conversely, if we respond well to creative suggestions, we’re likely to get more of those! As Toby Hemenway said, when there’s open space, “Nature responds with weeds—the smart gardener with a short-term, fast-growing crop.”

6. Weed seeds that lay dormant for a long time can suddenly spring up. Sustainable gardening teacher Sheila Daar reminds us that, “The seeds of many such species [of weeds] can remain viable in the soil for decades, just waiting for the right conditions, such as soil disturbance, to enable them to germinate.” It’s true in organizations too. And in society at large. Significant disturbances in the soil/culture and prompt those seeds to start growing. Issues can be kept in the closet for years before the weeds start speaking to us. Clearly the pandemic has brought any number of long standing social and workplace issues to the fore. 

7. Chopping weeds off with things like lawnmowers or weed whackers can actually worsen the problem. For a week or two it looks like you did good work but half a month later, the weeds are back worse than ever. This is a big problem in leadership—we tell folks who are sharing concerns to shut up, and we shut down difficult conversations. While they may keep quiet when we’re around, their frustrations and conversations are likely to continue. And the problems they’re trying to address will just come back later. 

8. Look closely to see what’s really a weed. One thing I’ve learned—both on the farm and in business—is that not everything that the mainstream world will tell us is a weed, actually is. Dandelions are an easy example. They were the bane of my teenage existence. Today, I buy dandelion greens at the farmers’ market. In nature there are a whole host of “weeds” that actually have high value. Pigweed was fought by American farmers for years. You may know it better now as amaranth. Purslane in corn fields was long perceived by mainstream American farmers as a weedy problem, but it turns out that it helps the corn to grow. As Sheila Daar says, “Some weeds are actually good for gardens. Before you declare an all-out war on weeds, learn more about them and direct your efforts appropriately.”

This same situation is also true in our organizations and in society. It’s up to us to see if there’s something positive to be found in what we thought was a problem. As Ralph Waldo Emerson asked, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not as yet been discovered.” This reframing is just as relevant in history too. We look at “riots” and “looting” through a critical and negative lens. But go back to the 1770s . . . British politicians were saying the same thing about the violence that steadily evolved into the American Revolution. Was the Boston Tea Party the work of freedom-loving revolutionists, or violent and destructive criminals? Not an easy question to answer without some careful thought. The same goes for Civil Rights marches, Black Lives Matter, the fight for women to vote, etc. Are they weeds? Or are they wonderful and much needed additions to our ecosystems? For me, they’re very clearly the latter!

Similarly, would a staff member who shares concerns about the company be a troublemaker? Or are they principle-centered leader who’s courageous enough to stand up for what’s right? What one person perceives as a wonderful plant to be preserved, others may see as noxious weed to be pulled. In most mainstream organizations front line folks trying to initiate change, would quite likely be perceived as problematic—“weeds” to be pulled, or even worse, wiped out with a pop of poisonous pesticide. But when we change our perspective, all of a sudden, people bringing up problems in caring and constructive ways is not about weeds, but rather a wonderful gift to the organization. Robin Wall Kimmerer shares, “In some Native languages the term for plants translates to ‘those who take care of us.’”

The late, great John Lewis said, “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Let’s make sure what we’re thinking of as weeds are really things that we don’t actually desire in our organizations before we start eradicating them. 

9. Honoring the weeds leads to good things. If we’re paying attention, weeds will tell us a lot about where our organizational culture/soil is deficient, and where we need nutrients or different plans—and plants—to create more health on the farm. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, a protégé of Rudolf Steiner, makes the case in his classic Weeds and What They Tell. “By learning to recognize indicator weeds and what they say about soil conditions, the observant gardener can learn a great deal about general problems and/or opportunities in the garden.”  My partner Paul has a quiet but effective regimen of merely inviting frustrated staffers to meet for coffee or lunch. It works. By the way, many of you know this already from your good work with customers. Customer complaints are a gift right? They’re telling us what’s wrong. And as you know, trying to eliminate customer complaints won’t fix the problem. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “Our indigenous herbalists say to pay attention when plants come to you; they’re bringing you something you need to learn.” Which is why a good way to turn a weed into a positive plant is to bring a skeptical staff member into the organization more effectively is to involve them in creating constructive solutions to problems they’ve pointed out.

As you can tell, my own intellectual garden has been growing steadily with these images. I believe this idea of weeding work brings a mindset that can make a meaningful difference for anyone who adapts it to their own lives. Toby Hemenway’s mentor, Bill Mollison, wrote “The aim is to create systems that are ecologically-sound and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute, and are therefore sustainable in the long term.”  When we do it well, wonderful things will happen As Wendell Berry writes, “We will see that beauty and utility are alike dependent upon the health of the world.”

Want to learn more about beliefs and ecosystems? Check out Part 4, The Power of Beliefs in Business.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!