Margaret Heffernan: Why leaders need to be like gardeners

What the military can tell us about leadership, the power of lunchtime talks and why diversity campaigns haven't worked.

by Margaret Heffernan
Last Updated: 09 Jun 2016

Nobody can define leadership but everyone believes they know it when they see it. Around the world, business schools and corporations attempt to teach leadership (or at least to cash in on its importance). Yet the only serious leadership training in the UK is provided by the military: a full 40 weeks of intensive, on site, experiential training. What commercial business offers an equivalent?

It no longer surprises me that the military is ahead of business in this regard. The consequences of leadership failure in combat are immediate, tragic and hard to fudge. Far earlier than most companies, the military realised that obedience – the human tendency to equate doing a job with doing what you’re told – constituted a profound risk. It invests more in simulations to test decision-making under pressure. 

So it’s no surprise to find the best metaphor for leadership coming from a military leader. General Stanley McChrystal told me that he equated it with gardening. Why? Because gardeners can’t do anything: they can’t make flowers bloom or plants grow. Their role is to create the conditions in which everything flourishes and achieves its best. Surrounded by insurgents and disrupters, being the smartest guy (or even gal) in the room isn’t an asset; it’s a bottleneck. True leaders know they only succeed when everyone succeeds. And McChrystal’s most used phrase? Thank you. 

A few months ago I did an author talk at Google’s headquarters in London. The brief was simple: lunchtime, 50 people, talk about your book for half an hour, followed by Q&A. My session explored preconceptions around talent and productivity and how wrongheaded most of them are. The audience consisted primarily of engineers: curious, attentive, a little rattled by my argument and data, but willing to engage. It was fun; my publisher sold books and I took home a Google Android figurine. 

Such talks are simple to arrange, since most authors are happy to oblige – it’s often a more engaged audience than many festivals provide. New conversations bounce around the office and you’ve no idea where they’ll land or what they’ll turn into. Social capital and intellectual refreshment all in a simple, low-tech lunch hour. 

Most of our working time produces just the opposite: so many Flat Henrys, driven by long hours, KPIs and performance management systems that make us all task-driven and dull as ditch water. (Full disclosure: when I have an intense quarter, exactly the same thing happens to me: I lose the capacity to dream, to let my mind wander and to connect ideas. All I think about is the next thing, and the next thing. Very Macbeth, not very productive.) From such habits, innovation and creativity will never emerge. 

So what better solution than to bring creative people in the door just to share what excites, provokes and stimulates them? Alternative perspectives, new challenges or puzzling trends reframed.  Why doesn’t every company do this?

A few months ago, I contributed to an episode of Radio 4’s The Bottom Line. The topic under discussion was boards: how they operate, what differentiates effective from ineffective meetings. Naturally, diversity came up – but my fellow contributors didn’t seem to think it mattered. Michael Jackson of Elderstreet Investments just couldn’t see the point of diversity (although he said some of his CEOs are women) and Sir David Walker, formerly chair of Barclays, subtly evaded the topic by making a plea for younger board members ‘with L plates’. (Whether he meant women is a matter of interpretation.) Neither men appeared familiar with or supportive of the argument that companies need to look like the markets they serve, or the mountain of research that demonstrates that diverse groups are better at solving hard problems fast. Their ignorance left me speechless, almost.

Why have the diversity campaigns of the past 10 years achieved so little? My very first book tackled the obstacles experienced by ambitious women in corporate careers. My second looked at the outsize success of women-owned businesses: that these companies with less institutional or venture investment proved more enduring and profitable than businesses on average seemed worth paying attention to. We know now that everyone is subject to unconscious bias but few organisations seem willing to embrace the obvious remedy: a balanced portfolio of biases. The economist Robert J Gordon maintains that most of the post-war productivity growth was due to women’s entry into the workforce. No wonder it’s stalled when we are. 

One problem may be the very people who champion diversity most. The cause often sits with HR women. They mean well but they’re seen to be self-interested. One of the pioneers in this field, IBM, made great headway when its champion for women was Ted Childs: an African American male. ‘Fighting for a group that is not yours is a completely different fight,’ he told me. Childs campaigned for women, the gay and disabled communities – not his own. This gave him an immense advantage; his colleagues took his arguments seriously and responded frankly. Self-interest, Childs believed, was a liability, but selflessness was power. Nobody for one moment imagined he didn’t understand discrimination. 

Margaret Heffernan was CEO of five businesses and her book A Bigger Prize is out now. Follow her on Twitter: @M_Heffernan

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