The Servant Leader as Gardener: Artificial Flowers may be Beautiful but…

gardener focussing infomatique flickr.The Servant Leader as Gardner

Consideration of the garden and the gardener is fertile ground that allows the Christian servant leader to reflect upon his own performance. It gives insight into the needs of the garden (the people) and the outlook and perspectives needed by the gardener (the servant leader).

The aim?

That the servant leader develops himself as a leader and as a servant so that together both he and his people can flourish and achieve their full potential in the service of a common, higher purpose.

This article, the last in Dr. Thorsten Grahn’s “Servant Leader’s Garden” series, reflects upon the needs of growth and partnership from the perspective of servant leadership.

Artificial Flowers are Beautiful, but Do Not Grow

There are many good reasons to prefer artificial flowers to natural ones. The good ones look extremely pretty. Even after a month in a vase they are still in full bloom, the leaves have not gone limp and they require no water, no sunshine and no nutrition to keep looking pretty. They will never die.

Artificial flowers only have one disadvantage: they do not grow! They stay the same forever. They will never die, but only, because they never lived.

Sometimes leaders wish their staff would behave like wonderful artificial flowers. However, soon they would discover that there is no more growth, no more flexibility and no more adaptation to a changing environment. In fact, no more change at all.

Organizations need living people who want to grow, and not people, who want to keep the status quo. The leadership must treat the people as living plants that need much care, but in the long run they will always outshine the “artificial flowers” in the organization.

Visible Growth Always Starts Invisibly

The most important part of any plant is its root. The most important part of a plant’s life is the time when the root is still hidden in the dark soil, preparing itself for its breakthrough. The gardener cannot yet observe any growth, and does not know whether the plant will bear fruit or not. However, the gardener knows the life cycle and the seasons of the plant, and when he should expect the first leaves to break through the soil.

The most important growth in an organization happens inside the people of  the organization. Servant leaders need patience, a tending heart and listening ears to sense the growth of the people before it becomes obvious to all. Servant leaders allow people the time to grow inside first, before they grow in the public. Nothing can replace a strong root.

A Small Seed Can Make a Big Difference

Even big trees start from small seeds. It may take time for the seed to grow, but from the beginning that small seed already contains all the potential that is necessary to become a big tree.

It is important for the servant leader to properly assess the future potential in their people, not to judge them based only on their present performance. Then, just as the gardener prepares the soil and the environment so, the servant leader must provide a growth-promoting environment for the people that they lead.

The Gardener Tends Both In and Out of Season

The gardener tends his plants regularly. It is not simply a part of his job, it is his main task. It is not necessary to tend every plant every day in the same way.  However, the gardener’s care of the plants is based on their individual needs, in the light of the growth of the whole garden.

Similarly, listening to one’s people and nurturing them must be an ongoing responsibility of a servant leader, as well as making sure that the actual organization’s development is in alignment with its basic purpose and mission.

Growth Has Its Season but No Season is without Growth

Growth never happens in all areas of the garden at the same time. Every plant has its time. Some flourish in spring, others in summer. Some bear fruit in autumn. Some remain green the whole year round.

The same is true in organizations. Not all projects bloom at the same time. Not all people grow at the same pace. Therefore, it is necessary for the leadership to know its people and its projects well, so that they do not develop unrealistically high – or low – expectations.

Where there is a Vision there is a Way

I have always admired the power of a small dandelion that breaks through asphalt. It is a plant with a small seed and soft blades but as it grows it can force itself through cracks in the asphalt, breaking it up to reach the sunlight. The plant has never before been exposed to the sunlight, it has always lived in the dark soil. But internally there is this strong drive to break through to the light.

Where there is no vision, the people perish” says the Bible (Proverbs 29:18). When there is no vision in an organization, there is no direction and no drive in the people, and the organization will perish. A key challenge for servant leaders is to lead the development of a vision that is as powerful as the dandelion’s drive to get to the light. They inspire a shared vision that encourages the drive for individual and organizational growth.

If You Need to Pull a Weed, “Pull It out, Do It Stout”

Weeds are always a problem in any kind of garden – except maybe in a weed garden. Weeds can be generally defined as those plants that grow without being planted. Often weeds are fast growing and robust; they can easily outgrow and overgrow the  plants that have been planted by the gardener. If a gardener recognizes a weed in an area of the garden, the best response is to get it out as fast and as thoroughly as possible paying special attention to the root. Otherwise, the weed comes back very quickly.

The growth of people can be a messy business and it can generate all sorts of issues and difficulties.  When negative things arise in an organization such as: false accusations, betrayals and unresolved conflicts between people, then the servant leadership must act as quickly as possible to address and resolve the issue.

Servant leaders deal proactively with conflict. They focus on the creative potential inherent in any conflict more than on the potential destructive impact. They know that conflict is part of any growth process.

Ivy Needs a Tree to Grow

Ivy is a climbing plant that needs a partner – which is not ivy – to enable it to climb and grow. Often ivies climb trees because they are natural supports for them.

Lasting partnerships are only possible if the plants meet each other’s needs. Small and weak ivies can grow on bushes, but strong climbing ivies need strong trees to grow properly. As a tree is to young ivy, so a mentor is to the younger, newer worker.

People need other people to grow and the servant leader will foster links so that this coaching and mentoring can occur.

Many Are Always Stronger than One

In an article about creating a wind resistant landscape Tasker contends that, in order for a tree to survive a hurricane, one has to “Create a design that locates trees in groups rather than individuals that are easy targets for big windstorms.”

The tabonuco tree, which grows in the Caribbean region, provides a fascinating illustration of this principle. They enjoy a unique, collaborative system that enables them to withstand even the strongest hurricanes.

Seedling populations of the tabonuco tree concentrate on ridges where adults dominate and form tree unions by interconnecting all individuals through root grafts. The root connections of the tree union enable materials to interchange among the trees, allowing suppressed and dead trees and stumps to re-sprout.

Just as the tabonuco tree connects its roots with other tabonuco trees, and exchanges strengths and vital elements, the people in an organization are able to withstand external pressures if they have built strong relationships before the crisis. The leadership of an organization can encourage such developments and servant leaders encourage and live community. Commenting on Ecclesiastes 4:12 (“A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”) Buzzell notes, “Three separate individuals are as vulnerable as one individual. The word “relationship” implies the attempt to twist the threads together. The result? Better work, less vulnerability

Applied to organizational leadership it means developing and encouraging teamwork and community among the staff. Then in times of high external pressure the group members support each other and do not look only to the leadership.

And Finally . . . . . . . Take Time to Smell the Roses

There is a Chinese proverb that goes “Life begins the day you start a garden!”

Gardeners enjoy the roses that they grow more than they mourn the seeds that die in the process. Gardening is a wonderful job: To be in contact with growing and ever-changing plants, to watch their fruit develop, to nurture them, to water them, to watch them recover from the heat and to see the impact that the garden has on other people. Moreover, comments Buzzell, “Every blossoming flower is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to us

Leading people often involves difficult, challenging, and suffering situations. For a servant leader to stay healthy and to be able to empower others, they need to take time to sit back, relax, and enjoy what has been accomplished. It infuses new power and joy and makes them grateful for the observable growth.

The final encouragement to the servant leader is “stop and smell the roses once in a while”.


Find some moments to smell those roses. Stop and ponder the achievements of your people. Humbly consider your successes too. These are the encouragements that every leader needs.

Then consider the lessons that you can take from this article to grow and develop as a leader yourself.

Do you recognize the difference in style and capability of your people or are you looking for cloned capability that is only able to work one way? There may be a time and place for that, I am not sure that I would want the team at a nuclear fuel storage facility to make it all up as they went along!  But it won’t help your people develop to their full potential and it won’t help with the out-of-the-ordinary.  How can you foster the unique strengths and abilities of the individuals in your team and use them to power greater capability?

Are you frustrated by people who seem not to be growing or improving? Remember that invisible, in the soil growth, without which the plant will be weak and will bear little fruit. Now can you understand that person’s needs and how can you feed their growth and develop their potential so eventually the “plant” breaks through?

What is the vision that encompasses the higher purpose that is served by you and your team? Have you got one? Do they own it?  That ownership only truly comes about if they are party to its development and with that ownership comes unprecedented commitment. How can you facilitate that amongst your team?

Are there any messes that need clearing up? Left alone they will become quite toxic and work against your team. As a servant leader,  how can you address them and achieve a positive outcome?

What are the partnerships like in your team?  Have you an ivy that needs the support of a strong tree? Are your people like a stand of tabonuco trees, able to support and sustain each other when things get tough? How can you develop that kind of community?

If you haven’t read them yet take a look at the other articles in “The Servant Leader’s Garden” series: Grass Doesn’t Grow Faster If You Pull It , Without Change There’s No Growth and also Jesus: The Role Model for Christian Leaders also by Thorsten Grahn.