It was a spontaneous purchase. They were staring at me in the checkout line. Because of the pandemic, my usual habit of engaging strangers in line has diminished. My eyes wander now to what is on the shelves begging to go home with me.
This time it was a bag of daffodil bulbs. The calendar flipped a couple times before I remembered the bag of bulbs that needed an earthly blanket of soil before the first frost.
The original plan was to pull off the bark dust, carefully place the bulbs around the tree in a systematic pattern and reinforce the soil with food for the long winter. The plan was the bulbs would have the best environment to develop and grow. Instead, I found a mound of dirt on the edge of the woods. Dug some holes in the dirt, doing everything the instructions say not to do. I did not space them, did not provide extra nutrients, nor place in the right depth. I placed them into the situation and hoped for the best, giving the proverbially pat to the earth as I walked away.
This spring in a mound of dirt on the edge of the woods, small green leaves are pushing upward. Will the flowers be as full as they had the potential to be? As I stared at the mound of dirt and the bulbs trying so valiantly to survive, I found myself asking: Would these bulbs have done better if I had acted in the manner of a gardener? What my friend Webster says about being a gardener is this: “a person who is called to cultivate or care for …”
Called to cultivate or care for — is that not what leadership is about as well?
Since I was already tooling around the internet, I typed in Gardener Leader. John Gardner’s name filled the pages. John Gardner was an extraordinary man. A leader before his time, he wrote in 1963 the book: “Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society.” He writes of the importance of stamina and taking risks. He talks of tough-minded optimism. He speaks about how people who renew themselves have the capacity for innovation. They thrive instead of surviving. He goes on to say, “They can see life through another’s eyes and feel it through another’s heart.”
Many times, as leaders we do the mound of dirt action. Time is short, it is chaotic, and we need to just get work done. Hasn’t this last year been a year of just getting it done? Those who work for us, have been like the bulbs in the ground, figuring it out. But, like the bulbs in the ground, they have not flourished nor reached their full potential. The call of the Gardener/Gardner is now. Now is the time to cultivate or care for your people. Now is the time to see life through another’s eyes and feel it through another’s heart. Now is the time for empathetic leadership.
Empathetic leadership is one of the top skills needed for now and into the future. The leader who works to develop his or her skills sets will create an environment that develops bonds, fosters insight, teaches presence and promotes a culture where people want to be, not where they have to be.
Empathetic leadership is not easy. It is far easier to just use the metaphorical mound of dirt approach. But if you continue to do that approach, you will never cultivate a work environment where people want to stay and contribute. Developing and maintaining a stable workforce means you must be a gardener of the environment of which they live and breathe daily.
Research has shown that when a leader does not demonstrate empathy, employees feel less loyal to them, the organization and their work. High turnover and low engagement are a symptom of an environment that has not been cultivated to grow individuals to be their best.
Can you learn to be an empathetic leader? Yes, but it takes a conscious effort. Just like the Gardener prepares and cultivates the soil for growth, so must you.
Start with the following:
- Be encouraging. Encourage your team to do their best and do not lose confidence in them.
- Work on listening: Listening carefully helps you to hear what is being said and not said. You listen with openness to understand the root of the issue.
- Lead from within the team: Do not lead from the front. Encourage collaboration and make sure everyone feels heard.
- Express genuine interest: Always take an authentic personal interest in the duties and each and every individual of the team. This provides insight into the barriers, challenges and what might be influencing their behavior.
Today as you read this, you have two choices. You can continue to be a mound-of-dirt type leader, or you can make a decision to become the Gardener Leader you want to be. The choice is in your ability. We know both will have results one way or another. Make the decision to be the place of choice of employment based upon the environment you have cultivated.
Martie L. Moore, MAOM, RN, CPHQ, has been an executive healthcare leader for more than 20 years. She has served on advisory boards for the National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel and the American Nurses Association, and she currently serves on the Dean’s Advisory Board at the University of Central Florida College of Nursing and Sigma. She recently was honored by Saint’s Martin’s University with an honorary doctorate degree for her service and accomplishments in advancing healthcare.