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Leadership Development

Leaders Are Weeders, Part II

Nine more reasons to make weeding part of your daily routine in leadership and in life

In Part I of this post, I wrote a bunch about how I got going on the idea of Leaders as Weeders. This morning, just to get myself in the mood, I did ten minutes of weeding while I was on the phone with my friend Aisling from Fumbally Café in Dublin, just before I started my morning journaling. It was a good way to get going, and it helped me stay grounded as I went through the ups and downs that inevitably make up my day.

I’ve been working slowly and steadily in the last month on my essay on organizational ecosystems, which reminds me that weeding is only one part of our work. Weeding without mindful farm management would just be something to do to kill time. By contrast, thinking about our organizations as ecosystems means embracing the reality that each element is impacting everything else. It’s about taking a caring holistic view that’s aligned with nature—and that as the “farmers,” we’re charged with helping to shape things in holistically sound ways. Designer John Todd frames that work well. Ecologically minded farmers and gardeners (I’ll add leaders), he says, “focus less on the objects themselves than on the careful design of relationships among them—interconnections—that will create a healthy, sustainable, whole. Interconnections are what turns a collection of unrelated parts into a functioning system, whether it’s a community, a family or an ecosystem.” Good weeding work by those who are leading is a quiet—and important—piece of that picture.

With that broader context in mind, let me share another nine more ways that I’ve come to believe weeding is such a worthwhile practice for those who want to be effective leaders of sustainable organizations. If you missed Part I, here’s the link. For framing and convenience, I will restate my metaphorical framework from the organizational ecosystem model:

Beliefs = “roots”

Positive beliefs lead to “desirable plants”

Negative beliefs lead to “weeds”

Culture = “soil”

In a nutshell, it is as editor Lillian Watson writes in Light from Many Lamps, “Good thoughts bear good fruit, bad thoughts bear bad fruit—and man is his own gardener.” With Watson’s framing front of mind, here are nine more ways I think Leaders are Weeders.

10. Weeds compete for resources with the plants we want to preserve. While long-term visioning allows us to live more expansively, resources are likely to be limited in the day to day. Attention, energy, generosity, time, money, etc. that are eaten by weeds are resources that aren’t going to be there to nurture plants we prefer to grow. Both on the farm and in business, weeds are pulling off nutrients that might be better going to the plants we would like to encourage. We as leaders are pulled to the staff who complain loudest, to the customers that demand a lot of attention but often spend little, to fixing small problems at the expense of the important but not urgent issues that we all know would benefit from our attention. The better our work on weeding, the more resources we have to feed the positive parts of our ecosystem.

11. Weeding reminds us that we’re never really finished. The work of weeding is a good life lesson. As musician Phil Elverum sings, “There’s no end, there’s no glory, there’s a slow resounding story.” Most of what we care about is going to be forever. Loving, listening, mindfulness, generosity, kindness, quality improvement, learning . . . they aren’t one-time events. As author Chris Wilson writes, “It’s not one day that changes your life. It’s every day.” With that in mind, I’m intent on taking on almost everything that matters to me each day and doing it again and again. The craft is in the repetition. Every serious weeder already knows that whatever good work one might do on Monday will need to be done again by the end of the week. As Toby Hemenway wrote, “Weeds manage to gain a foothold in even the most meticulously tended vegetable gardens.” Our only real choices are to give up or to keep going. I opt for the latter.

Ultimately, this approach to weeding—in the garden or in leadership—is about rigor. Vladimir Prohoroff, who’s a great team member at Zingerman’s Roadhouse and has done a lot of the good work to make our new Roadhouse Park out front so wonderful (we can serve you beer, wine, and cocktails out there now!), says, “The weeding is a discipline. Just like making your bed every morning. You have to do it regularly.” As General Stanley McChrystal makes clear, “Within our Task Force, as in a garden, the outcome was less dependent on the initial planting than on consistent maintenance. Watering, weeding, and protecting plants from rabbits and disease are essential for success. The gardener cannot actually ‘grow’ tomatoes, squash, or beans—she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.”

12. What’s weeded out in one ecosystem might be welcomed in another. I’ve realized in working with the idea of leaders as weeders that the plants, people, and ideas that some people try to eradicate are those that I try to nurture. Much of what we’ve achieved in the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses has been done by people, or with ideas, that would likely have been perceived as “weeds” in other workplaces. I’ve seen it over and over again—folks who don’t fit into the mental models of mainstream managers turn out to be creative, caring innovators who contribute greatly to our organizational health. People who were kicked out of other organizations for “making trouble,” we see as actively engaged innovators. People who were excluded elsewhere because of their gender, race, religion, having been imprisoned or being in recovery . . . are really often wonderful to work with. The truth is, Paul and I would probably be pretty rampant weeds in many mainstream corporate constructs.

With that in mind, I’ll share that I’m currently engaged in a couple of challenging group conversations in the organization. Both revolve around differing perspectives in what could be perceived as problematic conflict. I think it’s awesome. Awkward? Yes. Anxiety provoking? Definitely. But in a good, natural, and important way. This morning I ran into one of the folks who’d voiced frustrations. I thanked him profusely for his efforts. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t care so much,” he answered almost instantly. 

13. Weeding won’t work from afar. When it comes to weeding, there is no such thing as working from the 10,000 foot view. Weeding—in a holistic, chemical-free way—requires us to bend over or kneel down, look closely to see what we’re doing, and get our hands dirty. Wendell Berry encourages us to monitor the ratio of eyes to acres—“the balance between Nature’s landscape and the attention paid to it by its human inhabitants and users.” The higher the number of “acres per eye,” the harder it is to have a feel for what’s really happening on the ground. Weeds that are evident from up close become almost invisible as one moves further from the field. I’m not suggesting we never back away to get the big picture—as you know, I’m all about visioning. But to really be meaningful, it must be balanced by getting up close and digging in the dirt.

14. Seemingly small weeds can have shockingly deep roots. Sometimes when I’m weeding, I pull on a little sprout of a weed that’s barely two inches tall, but much to my surprise, the root system is six times longer than what I saw above the surface line. At first it would throw me, but I’ve slowly accepted it for what it is—weeds that were cut at the surface line seem to be gone, but the roots—which have been there for years—still run deep. Often, really deep. It’s true in organizations as well. Someone we hire with 15 years of bad bosses will not quickly let go of deep-seated beliefs. Same goes for racism, hierarchical thinking, bias against women in leadership, and a host of other long-standing commonly accepted negative beliefs. Everyone we hire will have a lifetime of unseen roots—i.e., unconscious beliefs—that they bring with them. Many of those beliefs are out of alignment with what we want to do in the workplace, which means that we need to gently weed those beliefs out before they cause problems in our organizations.

15. Positive plants can still survive a long time beneath the weeds. It’s true in organizations as well. Even in really negative organizational cultures, where divisiveness and derision seem to dominate, when one clears the weeds, it’s shocking how much good stuff is still growing underneath. It’s been there all along—we just couldn’t see it.

All of which reminds me of a time when I was seriously on the verge of freaking out. The whole thing brought the standard restaurant lingo, “being in the weeds,” into a very literal reality. It had to do with a few acres of farmland we had working to supply ourselves with produce. For whatever reasons, which aren’t relevant right now, the person who’d been doing the work—through no fault of his own I now know—was unable to do the work he’d committed to doing. Because I’d neglected to keep my finger on things . . . and because I knew pretty much nothing about farming and had a wealth of other issues to work on, I hadn’t even looked in to see what was going on. When I went out there, it was rough. Tomato plants were effectively covered under six foot “forest canopies” of weeds. Some of those root stems were two inches thick. I definitely wanted to flee. I felt like going off into the corner of the field and crying. My back hurt and the bugs were biting something fierce. Finger pointing and blaming certainly crossed my mind as possible paths forward. Those “escape routes” lasted all of about 60 seconds. I knew I was still responsible. I did what I could to not get overwhelmed. [My partner] Tammie came to help, and gifted me a pair of gardening clippers and some gloves. My friend Melvin from We the People came out to pitch in and so did a few other friends.

The fascinating thing though was that after those giant weeds had been pulled, I was amazed to discover that nearly all the plants underneath the weed canopy were actually still doing ok. Not thriving, but still surprisingly alive and ready to start recovery. Even in the most negative organizational cultures, working under the most unproductive manager one can imagine, there are still good people ready to do meaningful work under the weeds. As author and entrepreneur Matshona Dhliwayo says, “If you tend to a flower, it will bloom, no matter how many weeds surround it.”

16. Remember that in nature the healthiest ecosystems are the most diverse. Toby Hemenway said, “The importance of diversity is not so much the number of elements in a system; rather it is the number of functional connections between these elements. It is not the number of things, but the number of ways in which things work. What we seek is a guild of elements that work harmoniously together.” Building a diverse, inclusive organization with effective communication, connection across department lines, shared beliefs, values, and vision go a long ways to creating the healthy ecosystem we seek. This is an enormously important subject to be talked about at length elsewhere. But the point is, in farming, gardening, and in organizations, meaningful diversity is going to enhance our resilience, our creativity, and our collective ability to get to greatness.

17. Weeding reminds us that everything is out of control. General McChrystal says, “Attempts to control complex systems . . .  tend to be pointless at best or destructive at worst.” Agreed. One of the items on my list of the ‘other’ 12 Natural Laws is that, whether we like it, everything is out of control. All we have are our varying degrees of influence. The weeds remind me of this regularly. I have good intentions. I can try to make good decisions. I can be dutifully diligent, work hard, and have hope. But in the end of the day, the weeds will still do what they want to do. The only way to completely eradicate them is to spray with poison. Which kills the weeds, but also poisons the soil (in my metaphor, the culture). The weeds remind me regularly of what progressive business thinker Frederic Laloux lays out: “Everything will unfold with more grace if we stop trying to control and instead choose to simply sense and respond.”

18. Real life, regular weeding can be really therapeutic. While much of what I’ve written here is metaphorical, the idea of leaders being weeders also has a very practical day to day, hands in the dirt, application. For me, weeding has turned into a good way to reground. In this case, it’s literal. When I feel the early signs that I’m heading towards feeling overwhelmed, I’ve started to save my day by simply going outside and pulling some weeds. The work I hated when I was 18 now works like an emotional salve that I can use to salvage my day and recenter my energy. Weeding—even for just a few minutes—offers me a sense of achievement, a way to feel like I’ve actually done something meaningful. I get some quiet time, and I reduce my reactivity in the process. And, I’ll add, although it’s not why I do it, weeding at work also sets the sort of positive example of the sort of Servant Leadership we want to encourage. Is there a downside? Probably that you’ll start to get dirt under your fingernails. But maybe that’s a good thing?

Will weeding fix all our problems? Of course not. There is no one single thing we can do to make everything right in the world. Nature is complex. Life is complex. Human beings are complex. Our companies are complex. Weeding is one small, if meaningful, piece of a long-term project which is our life. As Toby Hemenway tells it, “A garden farm involves a complete reordering of society and economy and will take time to achieve.” What I do know though is that this mindset—and my new regimen of approaching my day with some quiet, quick, and unobtrusive weeding work in mind—has made a positive difference. Clearly, we have a long way to go to get through this pandemic, to push to rebalance centuries of racism, and correct countless other wrongs in our own organizations and in the world around us. But we need to keep going to get out the other side of all this. As General McChrystal reminds us: “Many leaders are tempted to lead like a chess master, striving to control every move, when they should be leading like gardeners, creating and maintaining a viable ecosystem in which the organization operates.”

What do you say? How about we weed the way into a positive future!

P.S. Want more inspirational insight about the value of good gardening work?

P.P.S. Here’s a great story about University of Michigan alum Vincent Smith

*** 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!