Working with the land is a great teacher of natural principles that are transferable to leadership. The principles I have learned from vegetable farming can be carried over into our professional lives.
Law of the Harvest
Stephen Covey was a strong influence in the building of the consulting company ThreeWill. My brother (and co-founder) and I would take early walks before our workday to discuss the values of our future company. One concept that stuck with me from reading Stephen Covey was the “Law of the Harvest.” He shares the lesson you learn on a farm and you can not rush the process.
Did you ever consider how ridiculous it would be to try to cram on a farm—to forget to plant in the spring, play all summer and then cram in the fall to bring in the harvest? The farm is a natural system. The price must be paid and the process followed. You always reap what you sow; there is no shortcut.Stephen R. Covey The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
For example, if you want to harvest green beans. There are some things you can do to shorten the time to harvest, but you still will need to wait at least 45 days to get green beans from the time you decide to grow green beans. You just can’t plant a green bean seed today and expect to harvest green beans from the plant tomorrow. As Steven Covey says, there is no cramming in farming.
Natural Laws on the Farm
In an instant gratification society (Amazon next day delivery and ordering fast food as examples) we can lose sight that accomplishments that you are proud of come through an intentional planned effort. In vegetable farming, there are several factors that go in a well planned harvest. I would like to share my experience with three of these concepts: Creating Fertile Ground, Planting Seeds and Tending the Field.
I will share some brief thoughts (these concepts can be their own posts) on these natural systems that occur in nature and then how that understanding can be translated to business and leading teams.
Creating Fertile Ground
You feed your plants by feeding and caring for the soil. In organic vegetable farming, one key way to do this is through compost. In addition to compost, you can feed the soil through cover crop to increase biomass and carbon in the soil. Creating healthy soil will feed the plants and allow plants to have strong resistance to diseases and pests. This foundation of healthy soil is one of the key elements of a successful vegetable farm.
As simple as it sounds, you can’t have a harvest unless you start with a seed. With planting seeds, you need to think about what seeds to plant based on your goals for the farm and what plants you are prepared to nurture. One of the biggest challenges with farming is planting too many seeds and not having the time to properly take care of them.
Tending to the Field
Removing weeds early. Walking the field to see when an area of the field is suffering or under stress. Noticing the small things that could turn into bigger things. With farming, things can quickly get out of control if there is lack of care provided at early signs of stress or problems. For example, when you find blight on tomato leaves, you want to remove the leaves early before that blight spreads further into the tomato plant causing you to potentially lose the whole plant.
Translating this to Business
Creating Fertile Ground Through Creating a Healthy Culture
A healthy company culture creates the fertile ground needed for ideas to “germinate and thrive!” The culture of a company can be compared to the soil on the farm. A heathy culture is a key foundational part of a thriving business. Just as poor soil yields unproductive crops, poor culture yields low trust, lack of common ground and overall can impact how your company can come together as a team and achieve challenging goals.
Planting Seeds By Casting a Vision
On a farm you sow seeds. In a business, you sow seeds through ideas, vision/mission and belief in your team. As mentioned in “Planting Seeds” above, you need to be careful to only sew the number of seeds you can tend to and nurture. It is easy to get overwhelmed with “sewing” too many ideas. It is better to have a business plan for the year that determines what are the right number of ideas (seeds) that need to germinate within your teams. Speaking from experience, a team can get easily get overwhelmed or confused if you plant too many seeds. Those ideas (seeds) compete with each other which will decrease the chances of that idea to come to fruition (or in farming terms – bear fruit).
Tending the Field through Understanding the Needs of the Team
Planting ideas (or seeds) in an organization can be the fun part. Coming up with the next great idea is exciting, but we all know the hard work is seeing that idea through to completion and getting good results. Seeing an idea through to completion requires showing up each day and “walking the farm.” Walking the farm to see what needs attention and to connect to what is working and not working through in person observations.
The plants of the farm can be in some way compared to the people of your organization. Your team needs the constant interaction to see what is working or not working along with getting a sense of what needs help before it becomes a true problem. For example, as a pepper plant matures it can get top heavy and topple over if you do not stake it. You want to do this same preventative maintenance with your teams. You do this by staying connected to your team members to be sure they are healthy and have the support they need to play their roles as they get their jobs done to the best of their ability.
Two Other Points of Comparison
Showing up is a key to the success in farming and success in business. Expanding on law of the harvest and tending to the field, it takes a consistent commitment to see results over time. It is the constant attention to detail over time that will show up in progress in the long term. If you don’t keep consistent with “showing up,” then things can degrade. You can get overrun with weeds or disease on the farm or have your business wither without attention to the health of the people in your company.
Embrace self governing systems
There is value in letting natural systems self-govern as much as feasible. Creating an environment where plants use their natural ability to adapt to their conditions will help make the plant stronger. You do not want to create dependencies to things that are available naturally. For example, you do not want to provide fertilizers if nutrients occur naturally in well amended soil (usually through nature provided nutrients in compost). Nature has a way of taking care of itself without our help (just look at an old growth forest). There are times we just need to get out of nature’s way. That also can apply to the people we lead. We sometimes need to get out of the way and let them learn through natural consequences that reinforce what works and does not work. If we shield people from failure, then they cannot grow from experiencing natural consequences.
In summary, I have reaffirmed what works in business through observing laws of nature and general experience that comes with the hard work of vegetable farming. These natural laws are not just limited to the farm, but carry over to our personal and professional lives. I would love to hear from others on how they see nature teaching them concepts or principles based on personal observations. You would be amazed to see what comes to mind when you stop and think about it. Please share your thoughts in the comments below. It does not have to be vegetable farming. It could be vegetable gardening, taking care of flower beds or just growing one plant on your porch. Looking forward to learning from others.