Karin Ovari

7 Leadership Lessons from a Garden

July 4, 2017

7 Leadership Lessons from a Garden… and I how I grew in the process

Leadership Lessons

It’s 2012, and I arrive in South Africa as your typical happy-go-lucky consultant, plucked from the harbourside waters of Sydney and ready for a new challenge in life.

I didn’t know then that I was about to enter one of the toughest years of my life, as the newly appointed regional manager for sub-Saharan Africa, with no direct colleagues or team on the continent. I felt responsible for being the manager, consultant, travel agent (I flew a lot), etc., and, in the words of Bryce Courtenay, I was The Power of One.

To be fair, up to this point I had been working in and around sub-Saharan Africa for more than six years as a fly-in, fly-out behavioural safety leadership coach, consultant and trainer.  My experience in the region is extensive.

Being an all care, no-responsibility (not quite true) consultant, flying business class around the world, is very different to taking on a new role as a full-time regional manager for what was effectively a new business in a new country.

As the first year unfolded I struggled emotionally, to the point where I had a complete mental and physical shut down for a short time in the August of that year.

With hindsight, I was uncertain about what I needed to do to be successful, or who to ask for help. The classic, Well, they put me here so I must need to figure it out ‘alone’ – what nonsense!

My determination to stay put – and the fact that there was someone else in my home in Sydney – meant that I had to put on my big girl panties and get on with it. I had to make things work.

I dug deep. So very deep.

Once I employed someone life started to shift, as life does. This was a huge lesson for me here; don’t wait until everything is falling apart before getting help and growing your team.

On a personal level, I also realised that my beautiful temporary apartment by the riverfront wasn’t for me. While meeting with one of my contractors at Tasha’s, a coffee shop with wonderful food and a great ambience, I realised that I had to move closer to Johannesburg and enjoy the hustle and bustle of city life again.

But what else did I want?

I really wanted a small garden as well as a home: a space to nurture and be nurtured.

I found that fabulous house in the suburbs with the perfect garden – yes, a little unwieldy and a little out of control, but with the potential to be that lovely nurturing space. And so I took it.

And then followed the pure joy of cutting grass – it was all about being present. Coupled with a gin and tonic in the other hand, it was divine.

Step by step I was simply there, in nature. Enjoying the sun, pulling out weeds, on my hands and knees trimming edges, moving plants around and tweaking things, to make it just the right little project. Birds came, so I put up some feeders. And when I started to have people over to enjoy the space it became a sanctuary for me, and all the life around me.

Over the next 15 months, the garden and I basically became one.

During this period, it also struck me how many lessons I was learning as a leader by being in my garden, enjoying simple things. Sometimes I was only out there for a few minutes, and sometimes for a few hours, but I showed up consistently – plucking this little weed there, trimming that shrub there – always nurturing, adjusting, tending.

And on reflection?

Here are my 7 leadership lessons from a garden

The overarching lesson was;  be consistent, and be the change you want to see happen.

1. A little bit of dedicated time every day does make a difference.

It doesn’t have to be a great big song and dance (i.e. a performance review), but a few minutes spent each day with your team will plant the seeds for success.

2. Some days you move one piece and not the other.

Be strategic about where you place that consistency. The more aware you are of your team’s strengths, the more able you are to nurture and develop a healthy environment for all.

3. Celebrate those small wins and enjoy the moments when you’re winning.

There were days when I simply sat and enjoyed my garden. When the first bulbs sprouted I was so excited, and my team were equally excited. Whenever we won a new client or had some success, we did a little happy dance.

4. Create a safe and nurturing space for people to work with you and stay with you.

Many years ago, I read a small book called The One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, which is still as valid today as it ever was. It’s written in story format and is a young man’s learning journey about what makes a good manager – he comes across one such manager who lives by the motto people who feel good about themselves produce good results. One minute of your time could leave a legacy of success.

5. We often take too long in asking for help.

I had to visit the garden centre for help and assistance to make my garden grow and become my sanctuary. The same applies to us as leaders: we all need help to succeed. A leader needs space to ask questions and not be afraid to ask for help.

6. Don’t wait for your garden to get out of control.

Be brave and seek the help you need. Seek out your peers, manager or coach.

7. Reap what you sow.

From your first turn of the soil, you learn that everything you do has an impact. Your effort is rewarded with blossoms, or vegetables, or beautiful foliage. The same is true with your work environment, no matter your position in it.

At the time, the garden was more of a reflective process for me – it helped me to stabilise emotionally – and I realise now that as my personal journey unfolded, my team at work grew, too.  Life certainly felt easier, which was of benefit to the team. The garden and team growth happened in tandem.

As for that tough year – I went on a bit of learning journey, which hasn’t stopped yet, that brings me here to you today.

This is just one of the many life experiences that have sown the seeds for my direction in life and strengthened my desire to help people have an easier day at work.

Other Life Leadership and Coaching Lessons you might enjoy

Over to you…

I would love to hear about your Leadership life lessons and their impact.

  1. What leadership lessons have you learned along the way from your life experiences?
  2. Can you link them back to leadership at work?

Let me know your thoughts.

Feel free to ask a question or simply leave a comment.


7 Leadership Lessons

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