There are two analogies for leaders that have made a visceral impact on my life and career, the architect leader and the gardening leader. These analogies became central to my personal and professional growth ever since I formally entered management five years ago. Arguably, I have been a leader for much longer than that in the various team or technical leadership positions and my time in the military. However, it wasn’t until my focus moved predominantly to management that I began building models for leadership mindsets.
For the first three years of my management career, I thought of myself as an architect. I set the vision for my team and lead them through the process of making it a reality. I felt personally responsible for the outcomes and felt that, given my technical expertise, authority, and control (ha! Control, what a joke), I should have all of the necessary tools to be successful.
The architect is someone who attempts to manifest their vision into reality by using a group of people’s efforts to build it. Their entire field of view is set on the outcome and the components needed to build it.
Around my one-year mark, I woke up to the reality that my team, which was quite large, had systemic problems. There was fear of failure, finger-pointing, narrow perspectives of personal responsibility, and refusal to work without insanely specific direction.
There was a common cause. To my shame, it was me. I had become a toxic team member when I became a manager and needed to figure out why.
I made many mistakes and learned many lessons. The most life-altering lesson that I learned was that I did not actually have any control at all. This turned me into a burnt-out ball of stress and frustration. I won’t get into those details too much because I have already written about them (Learning to Manage: Recovering from the Crash | The Collaboration Commission [series]).
Instead, let’s talk about how I became that way. I was just learning how to be a manager and latched on to a lot of cues from my direct and in-direct leadership along with the company’s culture as a whole. I responded to the messaging that I was accountable for my team’s outcomes and that it was my responsibility to achieve success. I listened to managers complain about their lazy employees and constant skirting of responsibilities. I saw user stories and requirements completed to the absolute bare minimum and, once again, fingers being pointed down to the individual contributors for forcing dictative and prescriptive practices from the managers.
My biggest mistake was believing any of it. Too much of it was leaders playing the blame game and directors/VPs setting expectations for managers that were impossible.
Around my three-year mark as a manager, I finally had enough of the stress and unhappiness. I changed companies and found myself reporting to a very different kind of leader at a company with a very different kind of culture. Here, people came first. Surprisingly, this is not lip service either. The actions of the vast majority of leaders prove on a daily basis how important this is and suddenly I was being measured but how well I create a positive and effective work environment and not on how late or early that last project was.
This is where I learned how to garden. Unlike the architect, the gardener does not need authority, and, let’s be honest, nature laughs at our belief that we have any control. The gardener is not responsible for the plants growing. In fact, if they plant 30 seeds and only 10 bloom, this is success and the norm.
The gardener is responsible for producing the best environment possible to give the plants the best chance to thrive to their personal best. Imagine that this gardener is tending a garden during a drought. They water the plants with as much water as is available for the task. They alternate shading the plants and giving them sunlight so that their need for the sun is satisfied but the dry leaves are not burnt away either. For all of these efforts, only ten percent of the plants survive and none thrive.
That gardener is a metaphor for the manager that is promoted after completing a failed project.
I never understood how leaders could be given bonuses or promotions or simply not fired after major failures until I learned what it meant to be a gardener and to be a leader. It is possible for you to do everything right and still fail. It is possible for every person on your team to do everything right and still fail.
The major difference between a gardener and an architect is that the gardener cares for the plants and works to make the best environment possible while the architect tries to manifest their vision into the world through control.
Could I have been a gardener at my first management job?
I consider myself an adaptive person in addition to someone who evolves. I enjoy playing with these concepts because the evolutionary mindset tells me that being the gardener is superior to being the architect, and I do believe that. However, the adaptive mindset could claim that each method suited the culture that I was/am in. That is also true.
So, what should you do?
To answer that question, we must define success. One way of viewing success is advancement within your organization in the form of ladder climbing. To do this, you want to be more adaptive-minded and conform to your company’s culture enough to be recognized for your work. Being an architect at my former company definitely was advancement fuel, as discovered with my first promotion in the first nine months of being a manager.
Another way of viewing success is how effectively your team functions. In this case, I am not just talking about raw output. Output is a factor but so is retention, team morale, quality of work, collaboration, etc. If the goal is the most effective team, then it has been proven that happy, cared-for, teams are the most effective. Being a gardener is the correct path. In some cultures, this is both personally rewarding and is rewarded with respect, influence, promotions, etc. However, even in cultures where the architects get promotions, a gardener can be quite successful. In fact, it is those cultures that need the gardeners the most and the individual contributors gain the most from having a gardener tending the hostile environment where they try to survive.