The Servant Leader as Gardener: Without Change There’s No Growth

fractal-ferns-LadY-DragonflyCC-FlickrThe Servant Leader as Gardener

The garden and the gardener is an excellent metaphor for the relationship between servant leaders and those that they lead. Considering the needs of the garden, and more specifically individual plants, alongside the outlook and activities of the Gardner provides insight into the role of the Christian servant leader.

This is the second post in a series on being a servant leader adapted from a paper by Dr Thorsten Grahn, one of Claybury International’s associates. You can read Thorsten’s first Article in The Servant Leader’s Garden Series here and “Jesus: The Role Model for Christian Leaders”, Thorsten’s introduction to Christ-centred Servant Leadership

This article focuses on some key realities about the growth of people and the role of the Christian servant leader in its facilitation. First it’s the recognition that growth in organizations is as dependent upon God as is growth in a garden. However, growth needs to be fostered; it requires sufficient room for the individual to grow but excessive growth on the part of one can constrain and deprive another. Even then the difficult process of “pruning”  is required to help shape and direct people, increasing their fruitfulness. But perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of growth is change. This is inevitable.

No Miraculous Growth without Miracles

A gardener can cultivate a garden with excellence and through his diligence come close to gardening perfection, but even then, without a sufficient supply of water and sunshine, the plants or even the whole garden might die. Man made nurturing in the garden is absolutely necessary but of itself it is not sufficient for growth.

All plants need a regular supply of water and sunshine, and the amount and intensity required will vary from plant to plant. Man works hard to control these supplies and so control the growth of plants   However, even though horticultural and agricultural technology is moving fast, it will never be able to fully replace the natural sunshine, wind and weather supplied by the creator who sustains his creation.

The same holds true for the Christian servant leader. In an organization, even when the leadership does everything possible to help the people and the organization to grow, there may be unforeseeable and uncontrollable events that hinder the organization’s ability to flourish. The best Christian leadership is dependent upon man and therefore has its limitations. Consequently, leadership alone will be insufficient for growth. The Christ-centered servant leader must rely upon God, whom he serves.

The Apostle Paul, who sees himself as a gardener in the Christian community, understood that in the final analysis, all Christian growth is only by God’s grace when he writes in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Effective Growth Requires Sufficient Room

Bamboo varies in height from small, one foot (30 cm) plants to giant timber bamboos that can grow to over 100 feet (30 m). It grows in many different climates, from jungles to high mountainsides. Bamboo is often classified by the type of root it has. Some, called runners, spread exuberantly, and others expand slowly from the original planting. Generally, the tropical bamboos tend to expand slowly and the temperate bamboos tend to propagate via runners.

In our garden, we had one of the temperate, running bamboos. It was a beautiful plant, and we had already made several attempts to limit its growth to keep it in a specific area. However, all attempts were to no avail, the bamboo cut through or grew under or over any set barrier and developed roots in other parts of our garden. The bamboo hindered the growth of other plants in the garden. It needed more space to grow. As we did not have more space, and the bamboo would not stay within its allocated area, we finally had to pull it up to protect the rest of the garden.

Similarly, people need space to grow, to try out new things, to develop new skills, to change themselves and the organization. To remain healthy an organization must provide sufficient space for growth within the organization, or the individual must transfer to another area, or even another organization. Otherwise, both the individual and the organization will suffer.

Servant leaders provide the necessary environment for growth for the individuals in the organization.

Lasting Growth Requires Regular Pruning

Trees are pruned to develop a strong branching pattern. The pruning of fruit trees not only shapes the future growth of the tree, it also increases the quality of the fruit. The goal of the pruning is to create a clear crown, which allows the air to pass through the crown preventing diseases and to let sunlight in. The sunlight is important for the flavor of the fruit.

In general, a strong pruning stimulates growth more than a cautious one. Often the inexperienced gardener makes the mistake of pruning too cautiously and then only on the outer part of the crown.

Pruning is important so that the tree will not invest too much of its resources into branches that bear no fruit.

Organizationally, the process of pruning is about prioritizing and focusing the work of individuals on what they are best at, and what is most needed for their individual growth.  As the gardener has to prune repeatedly, “pruning” should also become a regular process in any organization. In an organization it involves evaluating ongoing projects and ministries and cutting those areas that will not bear lasting fruit. It enables the available resources to be focused on the fruit-bearing branches.

Pruning is a very difficult leadership task, because it hurts people as it involves cutting projects that bear no lasting fruit. From this perspective only a few leaders are willing to take on the role of the gardener, especially if there is no pressing need. In difficult times, sometimes external consultants are invited to do the necessary pruning. This often happens so late in the process that, instead of pruning, the tree has to be cut down. It takes courage to prune. In the garden, as in many organizations, the pruning serves first the growth of the individual plant and only secondly the growth of the garden.

Servant leaders are not afraid of pruning. They know it will hurt the plant but it will also ensure improved growth and fruit bearing. When Servant leaders prune, their motivation is the same as God’s motivation for pruning as Jesus describes it in John 15:2: “Every branch that does bear fruit he (God) prunes, so that it will be even more fruitful.”

The One Who Outshines Others Limits Their Growth

All plants need sunlight to grow. However, some plants need more sunlight than others. Moreover, some plants take more of the sunlight at the expense of others leaving them in the shade. The gardener has to make sure that plants are placed in the right spots and that they get the sunlight they need.

In our garden, we have a cherry laurel sitting close to a rosebush. The roses need both regular fresh air and sunlight to flourish. However, the cherry laurel grows faster and thicker than the rosebush. We needed to prune the cherry laurel so that it does not grow into the rose bush. Instead of the cherry laurel outshining the rose bush and limiting its growth, both can flourish.

The leadership of an organization must be proactive in recognizing the growth needs of individual members of staff and must create the space and environment necessary so that everyone can blossom. Gary Yukl, a leading thinker and author on leadership, observed “Effective leaders help people develop their skills and empower people to become …… leaders themselves”

It’s Impossible to Grow without Change

In the garden, growth and death happen continuously at the same time, day by day. It is often invisible at first, but it happens. Also, in a garden there are many other changes, most of which are necessary to keep the plants growing. The garden needs the different seasons so that the plants can rest, gain new strength, multiply, flourish, and bear fruit at the right time. Sometimes, hurricanes, floods, or extreme heat drastically impact the plants in the garden.

This process of inevitable change is also true for people and the organizations in which they work. To foster growth in such circumstances organizational leadership needs to address the inevitable change that takes place. Thus, Christian servant leaders need to be prepared for the unexpected, continuously evaluating developments inside and outside of the organization.

There is one unchanging fact; the process of change occurs continuously whether anyone likes it or not. Moreover, change is a necessary outcome of growth; neither a plant nor a person can grow without there being change. Becoming people who achieve their full Kingdom potential is such a process.

“The scriptures focus more on process than on product, because all believers are in a process of becoming the people God meant us to be. Without change, growth is impossible” – Buzzell.


What was your reaction to this statement “,.. leadership alone will be insufficient for growth. The Christ-centered servant leader must rely upon God, whom he serves.”? How can you make more space for God in your leadership?

Have you people who are bearing fruit but who could be much more fruitful?  What kind of “pruning” would bring that about?

Take a moment to ponder the people you lead. Is there anyone withering in the shade of  another who has grown faster. What can you do to enable each to develop to their full potential?

Do you welcome change or fear it? Why? How can you enable others to embrace change and so flourish where God is leading?


Image: LadyDragonFlyCC