11 inspiring leadership secrets from bonsai

11 Inspiring Leadership Secrets from Bonsai

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.

patience inspiring leadership secrets

Nearly 400 years old, atomic bombing survivor

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.

look for life - inspiring leadership secrets

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.

Your Turn

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?

Massive Failures - What Great Leaders Do Next

Massive Failures? What Great Leaders Do Next

What do you do when you’ve screwed up and everyone knows it? Your failures weren’t just mistakes in judgment…you let yourself down. You didn’t keep your commitment. You hurt people you are supposed to help. Your team looks at you with disappointment.

Now what?

We recently spent a week in Germany sharing Winning Well practices with project managers from throughout Europe and the Middle East.

One of the most striking aspects of our travel in Berlin was the way in which Germany has chosen to confront its own history.

In the center of Berlin you will find monuments to the millions of victims of the Nazi regime. Holocaust education is mandatory for every student. Sections of the Berlin wall remain along with memorials to those who were killed trying to cross that border.

The ways in which Germany has acknowledged and taken responsibility are solemn and humbling examples of how to address your own failures so you can rebuild your influence and credibility.

big mistakes what great leaders do Holocaust Memorial photo

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany

 

  1. Don’t Hide
    Germany has chosen not to run from its past. It is literally out in the open for everyone to see. When you screw up, break a promise, or hurt someone, don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Acknowledge it. Own it.
  1. Apologize
    German leaders up to this day have apologized with statements of shame and repentance. Many leaders struggle to apologize for fear that it will make them look weak or ruin their credibility. The opposite is true. It takes strength to apologize and a straightforward apology builds your credibility. It signals that your team can trust you and it models how they should behave when they let one another down.
  1. Learn and Make It Right Going Forward
    When you’ve hurt someone or broken your word, do what you can to rectify the situation. These actions and commitments don’t erase what was done and, depending on the severity of your behavior, you may not regain the trust of those you hurt, but they do give you a chance to rebuild your credibility, influence, and relationships. Following large reparation payments and support for survivors, Germany has committed itself to human rights and living up to ideals of human dignity, diversity, and respect.

Progress Not Perfection

It’s not perfect.

Germany continues to struggle with anti-Semitism and the challenge of welcoming refugee immigrants while integrating new arrivals into a culture that strives to live up to its ideals of diversity and respect.

Your team doesn’t expect you to be a perfect person. They’re not perfect and when they see you screw up, own your failures, and move forward, you make it more likely that they’ll trust you and be able to do the same.

Final Thoughts

We recognize that for some readers this may be a challenging article. We do not mean to make light of the pain you have experienced nor would we suggest that you should readily trust someone only because they have apologized.

For others, we recognize the challenge that comes with discussing what has become the embodiment of evil in our age. We do not intend to make light of these events nor make false equivalencies between a leader’s broken promise and the systematic extermination of human beings. Even so, the principles that apply here apply to us all.

Lead well – the world needs you.

5 Top Leadership Articles for the week of November 6, 2017

5 Top Leadership Articles for the Week of November 6, 2017

Each week I read leadership articles from various online resources and share them across social media. Here are the five leadership articles readers found most valuable last week. Click on the title of the article to read the full text. I have added my comment about each article and would like to hear what you think, too.

How to Handle Tough Performance Conversations by Wally Bock

For a couple of decades, I began every supervisory skills class by asking the participants what they wanted to learn most. “How to talk to team members about behavior and performance” was always at the top of the list. Here’s what you need to know if you want to do that part of your job well.

My Comment: This issue continues to be both one of the most sought-after leadership development skills as well as the hallmark of effective teams and organizations that succeed in their work. Bock does a great job laying out important aspects including the vital need to build a relationship with your team members long before you’ve got to have a tough performance conversation. I’d also call attention to what he calls “the really hard part:” being quiet. As we’ve shared the Winning Well INSPIRE model for holding coaching and accountability conversations, many organizations are reporting back that when they ask what’s going on and invite the other party to come up with solutions – and then be quiet – they are seeing tremendous results. The people involved come up with better solutions that they own and then implement.

The Secret to Employee Engagement Isn’t About Your Employees by Ryan Westwood

Creating a healthy company culture is my passion. It began with the development of my first technology company, PC Care Support, and it has continued throughout my work with Simplus. As I study the online performance reviews of competing businesses, I have noticed something interesting: while companies offer incredible benefits like personal budgets for employee development training, free doughnuts, and gym passes, the reviews for some of these companies are poor.

Studies show that companies spend about $270 million per year on employee engagement strategies. “But approximately 63 percent of U.S. employees aren’t fully engaged in their work,” says Forbes writer William Craig. Here’s what I’ve found: If you want a great culture and true employee engagement, provide benefits that positively impact not just your employees but, more importantly, those whom they love.

My Comment: No work perk will ever overcome poor leadership or a bad culture. If you really want good employee engagement, build a clear strategy that helps them to win, generate ongoing wins, and cultivate awesome leadership at every level. Westwood’s suggestions are strong ways to focus your benefits – his suggestions communicate to your employees that you see them as a human being, that you are aware they have a life beyond the workplace, and that you care about those things. That said, even those types of perks will only be valued when they’re offered from a foundation of good leadership and a positive workplace culture. Otherwise, great benefits can’t help engage people with their work.

Speaking of Leadership: Speak Your Words by Scott Mabry

That moment you realize that the words coming out of your mouth belong to someone else.

I remember one of those moments. I sat across a table from the new CEO. Just the two of us. His question felt like a fist to my stomach.

“What do you think about the new team?”

To be honest I don’t even remember all the details of the conversation. I just remember I didn’t speak the truth. Oh, I tried to toss out a few subtle hints but in the end, I bailed and told him what I thought he wanted to hear. I spoke his words, not mine.

This was mostly because I didn’t trust him. Many of new the team members were people he had handpicked and that worked with him at his prior companies. To say anything critical seemed dangerous.

My Comment: I think we’ve all been there. Perhaps because you were scared. Or you didn’t yet know what you thought. Or perhaps you were trying to manipulate the situation. Regardless, you can’t lead without owning your voice and having the confidence and skill to speak your truth. Speak the truth compassionately. It doesn’t always mean you’ll get your way, but your confidence and influence will grow, as will others’ respect for you.

The #1 Killer of Change by John Thurlbeck at Lead Change Group.

I recently had a great catch up with my younger brother and youngest sister over a meal in their favorite local restaurant. Our conversation was free-ranging, covering a multiplicity of subjects.

However, a part of that conversation with my brother struck the deepest chords and prompted my thoughts in this post.

He works for a large national, not-for-profit organization in the UK, and it is mired in yet another major restructuring process, driven, as ever, by dwindling funding. The current process has been on-going for months.

My brother has worked for this organization for many years, and it appears to me that ‘change’ for this organization is an ever-present, as it strives to find the ‘best’ solution to delivering on its agenda. However, the current change process must be at least the fifth or sixth such process in about the past eight or so years.

Why so much change with so little apparent effect?

My Comment: Early in my career I would watch, amazed, as people I knew to be decent human beings, who were fairly self-aware and understood on-the-ground realities, would get into leadership roles and seem to change into unaware user managers. As I share in Winning Well, I’ve also had employees come and point out to me that I had undergone the same transformation and was not acting in line with my own values. What happens that causes these changes?

There are several reasons, but among them is the issue Thurlbeck brings up: groupthink. It’s a failure of all members to think critically and independently analyze an issue. It’s human nature to think that ‘enough of us can’t be wrong,’ but it happens all the time. We invite you to Channel Challengers – to find your truth-tellers and intentionally introduce different opinions. To consciously ask yourselves to “Own the UGLY” and explore the silent places that may be eroding your effectiveness or the opportunities that are right in front of you, but invisible until you seek them out.

Practical Tips to Practice Empathy by Shubha Apte

I recently read the book Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella.

What stuck with me is the episode he narrates about a question that he was asked while interviewing with Microsoft.

Here is what the story says…

Satya Nadella was asked this question when he wanted to be part of Microsoft.

“Imagine you see a baby laying in the street, and the baby is crying. What do you do?” he asked.

“You call 911,” I replied without much forethought.

Richard walked me out of his office, put his arm around me, and said, “You need some empathy, man. If a baby is laying on a street crying, pick up the baby.”

It is interesting how a CEO of a large company like Microsoft talks about empathy and its importance.

Empathy is considered the most important skill to have in the corporate world. People at all levels in the corporate hierarchy need to have this skill. With so much technological disruptions taking place in the digital global world, the human quality, Empathy becomes crucial.

My Comment: There is all-too-human tendency to reduce people from full human beings deserving of dignity and respect to their function. They go from being “Susan”, who has two kids, an ailing mom, and loves Italian food, and “Chase”, who is engaged, flies drones on the weekends, and wants to make a difference in the world to being “the reps.”

When we reduce people from their humanity to their role, we lose the connection we need to be effective leaders. The antidote to this reduction is empathy. Connect, pay attention, reflect what you hear. It only takes a few moments to cultivate that connection and restore someone’s humanity.

Your Turn

What thoughts do these articles bring to mind? Do you see something differently than the author? Did you have a favorite leadership article this week? Leave us a comment and let’s hear from you.