A mature bonsai tree commands attention. With a single tree, a master evokes an entire landscape and tells a story of power, perseverance, struggle, or abundance. As I’ve studied bonsai, I realized there are many leadership secrets available for leaders who want to help their people and teams to grow.
Inspiring Leadership Secrets
To accomplish this elegant combination of grace and strength, great bonsai practitioners must be both gifted horticulturists and artists. In the same way, leading people entails both vision and cultivation. Here are eleven inspiring leadership secrets from the art of bonsai:
1. Focus on strength and directing energy, not fixing weakness
In bonsai, the artist looks for a tree’s strengths. What is unique and special? What can they showcase?
Similarly, effective leaders look for strengths and build on those. Know of weaknesses to manage them and keep them from hindering strength, but focus on ability – in people, in yourself, and in your team.
Focusing on weaknesses builds nothing. Strengths produce results. What abilities, talents, and energy do your people bring to your team?
2. Growth requires patience
A fully developed bonsai can take decades to reach perfection. You collect material, let it rest and grow out for two or three years, prune and shape, then wait some more.
One of my very favorite trees is on display at the National Arboretum in Washington D.C. It is a Japanese pine that’s almost 400 years old! It’s an awe-inspiring sight, made all the more so by the fact that this tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima.
There are no shortcuts to produce growth. Nothing less than four centuries make that tree what it is.
But sometimes we force ourselves and our teams out of season. We push when we should rest. Or rest when we should study. Or move when we should question. Or question when it’s time to act.
To be effective, how can you be aware of your own seasons and your team’s season? You can use the competence-confidence model to give people what they need at this moment.
3. Treat individuals as individuals
A skilled bonsai artist knows that you cannot prune a trident maple at the same time of year as a juniper. Not all trees are the same.
People are also unique. Different people should be treated differently. What motivates one person may terrify or humiliate another.
How can you better understand the people you lead and learn how to maximize each person’s potential?
4. Healthy conditions produce growth
You cannot force a tree to grow. Rather, you provide the right nutrients, fresh air, sunlight, water, and soil and the tree will naturally grow. That’s what trees do.
People and organizations are much the same. Healthy organizations have healthy cultures and in healthy cultures, healthy people accomplish great things.
If your people aren’t growing and producing what you believe they’re capable of, examine your culture and systems. What can you do to help?
5. Appearances don’t tell the whole story
With certain trees, there are times of the year when you might swear the thing is dead. Some of the greatest abstract juniper trees have vast amounts of dead wood. A tree (and a person’s) potential is not just what you see.
In a tree, you look for life in the roots, in the channels that carry sap to the branches. In a person, you look for character. For integrity. For the desire to learn and willingness to try.
And when those are there, you:
6. Nourish or encourage what you want more of
A bonsai master knows which of three buds on the tip of a branch will be strong and best serve the tree. That bud is encouraged. If other buds would steal energy, they are removed.
You cannot wave a magic wand in bonsai or in leadership and have the right branch, team, or skills spring into existence. These things must be grown. If you want:
- More creativity, encourage it and remove barriers to healthy risk.
- More ownership, nourish responsibility and remove impediments to implementing ideas.
- To strengthen customer relationships, remove policies that prevent people from serving.
7. Pruning is beneficial
Sometimes a bonsai master will remove a branch or an entire limb for the health of the tree or so it can realize its full potential.
In your organization, do you regularly ask what we need to stop doing?
What methods, products, or services are no longer beneficial or serve the mission? You have limited time, money, and people. Set aside activities that do not serve your team or the mission. You can use the Own the U.G.L.Y. method to facilitate these conversations with your team.
8. Every part needs light to thrive
When caring for a tree, masters give great attention to ensure that every set of leaves or needles receives the light it needs. Without this care, interior leaves weaken then wither and die.
In organizations, we can shade out essential people who make a difference every day but aren’t the glamorous ‘face’ of the organization.
Do you treat your cleaning staff with the same dignity as your executives? Do you show appreciation to everyone in the organization for their contribution to the mission?
9. Make mistakes to grow
“Killing trees is the tuition you pay for learning bonsai.” – John Naka
No one enjoys making mistakes, but they are the price of knowledge. How can you create a safe environment for your team to make mistakes and learn what to do next time?
10. You cannot change the core
When selecting a tree, the bonsai master knows that some qualities of the tree cannot change. The general shape and strength of the trunk, the position of key limbs, the way the roots spread into the ground … these things are core to the tree and you cannot change them later.
Likewise, one of the most important leadership secrets to know is that you can’t change people. No matter how hard you work at it, forcing a gregarious people-person to work in isolation all day will end in failure.
Find people with a passion for the mission and the skills their work requires.
11. Nothing is perfect
Inspiring bonsai often tell a story. A tale of a lifetime fighting salt-laden storms blowing in from sea … or the struggle to survive hostile conditions in a rock cleft far above treeline.
These stories and a bonsai’s grace often result from the tree’s imperfections. The masters incorporate dead wood, twisted branches, and even wounds into the design to reveal the essence of the tree. They specifically select the best viewing – you don’t view most trees from every angle.
Leadership isn’t about perfection. It’s about improving the condition of your team and accomplishing the mission. Just as there is no ideal tree, neither is there one ideal person.
Abraham Lincoln reportedly answered complaints about General Grant’s heavy drinking by telling the complaining party to find out what Grant was drinking and to send his other commanders a case.
As in bonsai, effective leaders look for strengths, manage imperfections, and aim for magnificent results. We’d love to hear from you – Leave us a comment and share: What is one of the most important leadership secrets you’ve learned from an unusual source?