We have all witnessed numerous types of leaders: “hoarders,”,”ostriches” and “farmers.” It is farmers who ultimately get the real job of leadership accomplished.
“Hoarders” hoard people in their departments or offices. When they identify excellent employees or potential leaders, their first question is: “How can I keep this person here as long as possible?” They focus on their own immediate needs and want to keep these potential leaders in the their place. Their strategic question is “how can this help me?” I remember how I used to see leadership this way. I wanted to look good, and saw excellent employees as vehicles to reflect on myself to peers and supervisors.
Hoarders can be good managers; frequently, they know how to delegate well, they know how to utilize people’s skills, and they know how to get things done. However, hoarders are usually not interested in developing the skills and aptitudes of their best employees or in shaping these people to be future leaders. They tend to view career development by their subordinates as a threat to their own success, an obstacle to their own personal agenda, or as a hurdle to the long-term smooth functioning of their domain. Hoarders are not interested in the career development of staff members. They reason that such growth means they will move on to other departments within the organization or positions at other organizations.
“Ostriches” are not smart enough to hoard their people. I remember moments in my leadership journey when I lacked self-confidence and I functioned in self-protective mode. I would keep my head in the sand. Ostriches don’t have the depth of vision to think about the development of their staff. They articulate the mission of their office and expect all staff members to contribute to the fulfillment of that mission and the accomplishment of departmental goals and objectives. Employees exist to serve the department. If they leave, they can be replaced. If they are interested in professional development or the cultivation of particular skills, ostriches may not stand in their way. However they will never sit down with employees and delve into their professional aspirations, asking how they can assist them in reaching their goals. The development of new leaders among the staff is simply not an issue on ostriches’ radar screens.
The third group of leaders, the “farmers,” are different. These leaders grow people. People farmers maintain as a primary objective the development and success of their team members. In order to fulfill this role, people farmers plant the right individuals by engaging in a thorough, careful hiring process. They know that the hiring of any employee is a two-way street. There must be a match not just for the employer seeking to fill the position, but for the job applicant as well. Once these team members are hired, the people farmers nurture and cultivate them. Instead of fearing losing their employees, they actually help them articulate their personal goals and career visions. Then they develop methods for helping employees work towards those goals. In fact, the people farmers do everything they can to match people’s career aspirations with their job responsibilities, even if it means re-writing job descriptions, as long as such re-writing benefits the entire operation. People farmers know that their role is to put team members in positions to succeed, not to fail.
They provide all employees, new and experienced, with the necessary ingredients to do their jobs well: desired results, guidelines, resources, accountability measures and consequences. They collaborate with all employees they supervise on the development of annual goals, including the identification of skills to be gained or improved upon or the knowledge to be learned. People farmers talk the talk and walk the walk – they role model what they want to teach their employees. They also seek help from their employees, admit their own mistakes, teaching that vulnerability and humility are strengths, and thus empowering their mentees to contribute and shine. They empower people to own their issues and to bring forward solutions.
Farmers lead confidently through seasons, patiently feeding, pruning, tying, untying, planting, waiting, and harvesting. With sufficient nurturing and cultivation, these farmers experience the true joy of leadership: “people harvests:” – the development of their team members into new leaders. They also know how to let go. They expect to let go. On the day their people are ready to “leave the farm” and take on bigger responsibilities elsewhere, these farmers celebrate with them because they realize that these employees’ successes are their successes as well.
In all my years of leadership experience, I have few regrets. One major one is this: I wish I would have listened to my “inner farmer” earlier and followed the calling. Hoarding people or burying my head in the sand may have helped me at the time, but these were leadership strategies based upon a lack of self-awareness and wisdom. For decades now, I have been focused on cultivating people, and have seen leaders sprout and grow into majestic trees in whose shade many, including I, I have found new strength and re-discovered the joy of authentic leadership.