This excellent Chinese proverb has much to teach us about leadership: ‘If your vision is for a year, plant wheat. If your vision is for ten years, plant trees. If your vision is for a lifetime, plant people.’
The best leaders recognise talented people, plant them in the right soil at the right time, nourish them with ongoing support, mentorship and guidance – then step back to allow for growth.
At the same time, the people we nurture share in this responsibility for their growth. A good seed makes the most of the available soil, water and light while showing resilience to local pests and diseases.
Good leaders create an environment that encourages growth in as many people as possible. Leaders plant seeds, remove weeds (obstacles to growth), cultivate talent and grow their team’s capabilities, adding the fertilisers of praise and skills development along the way. Leaders know when to guide and when to let go. Great leaders even look for the seeds of promise in underperformers, weeding out negativity and developing talent.
Our efforts at nurturing those we lead should result in a future generation of people who are unique, diverse and capable of bearing good fruit, for the good of business and society.
When it comes to nurturing others, patience is a leader’s greatest virtue. A vintner painstakingly plants and cultivates vines, trusting in a yield of excellent grapes for winemaking, often in a very distant future. In his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell popularised the theory that it takes 10 000 hours of practice (in the correct way) to achieve world-class expertise in any skill. While some have argued that this theory oversimplifies reality, there is some merit to its emphasis on the time needed to hone a skill. Using Gladwell’s approach, if we spent an hour a day, 365 days a year honing our skills, leadership could take us 27 years to master.
Time is also needed for growth. Pruning and training a plant into a desired shape or form takes many seasons, in which times of both abundance and dormancy have their place. Our dedication to developing our leadership skills and growing these attributes in others is also a lifelong labour of love.
Nelson Henderson put it well by saying: ‘The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.’ That is, in many ways, the result of good leadership. We plant the seeds of promising people, with their buy-in, and allow them to mature and continue having a positive effect on others – which feeds the cycle of diversity in human capital and resilience in our organisations and societies.
The seeds we plant today define our future
In large part, the true measure of our worth as leaders is in the fruit of the people we lead. We must look for talented people and growth opportunities. We must plant people at the right time. Then we must reward progress, help people to weather storms, and step back to allow growth. If we are willing to do the work, we will reap the harvest of our efforts: resilient, growth-oriented people who further a culture of support, collaboration, talent-spotting and mentorship. In this context, people thrive, giving back purposeful work and strengthening the foundations of business and our country.
Brett Tromp CA(SA)
CFO of Discovery Health