2 Lessons Leaders Can Learn From Nature

August 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

This summer was especially dry.  My front lawn looks like a flash fire went through.  My ability to keep up with the watering fell way short.

I waited until September to take action because I know from experience that is the best month to re-grow grass.  I asked my lawn guy to prepare the soil with an aeration treatment, growth fertilizer, and power seeding.    I carefully watered his good works and the grass is coming back nicely.

All I did was create the proper conditions and allowed nature to take over.  This is an important lesson for leaders.  Don’t focus on improving individuals.  Use your energy resources to create the right conditions for performance.

I didn’t attempt to accelerate my lawn repair by conducting motivational speeches or placing posters of motivation on the surrounding trees and bushes.  Nor did I offer additional “rewards” in the form of additional fertilizer or water to encourage faster growth from those high performing seeds.  I also didn’t threaten to withdraw those goodies form those seeds that were slower to grow.

That approach would have been ridiculous.  Just as ridiculous is leaders who use performance appraisals and pay for performance and expect long term sustainable improvement without creating the proper performance context.  Performance, like grass will naturally grow when “good seeds” are planted in the proper conditions.  Nature takes over.

A leader’s first job is to create that context.  The proper context in an organization includes the following five key items:

  1. Values
  2. Vision
  3. Mission
  4. Management Theory
  5. Strategy

This is lesson number one for leaders.  What have you done lately to reinforce the clarity of the Values: How we want to behave regardless of the situation; Vision: how w want to look as an organization in the future; Mission: Why the organization exists; The Management Theory: Do you believe people want to do a good job or do you believe people need to be pushed to work?; Strategy: What differentiates you from other organizations in your industry?

The second lesson from nature is autonomy.  Nature allows choices to be made.  Make the right choices and you succeed.  Make the wrong choice and you lose (or you experience pain).  Nature does not control.  Nature encourages autonomy.

When organizational leaders rely on methods of control to manage, they impair the organization’s ability to respond or adapt to change. To be successful in this fast-paced business climate, leaders must learn to cultivate a context that empowers and encourages informed and rapid decision-making.

A good metaphor for this type of responsive decision-making is a flock of birds in flight.  It is a most mystifying phenomenon. As a group, they have no leader to tell them when to turn left or right, or when to slow down or to speed up; yet as a group, they change direction as effortlessly as a single organism.  How is this possible?  It is possible because, flocking birds naturally follow three basic principles: first, they fly in the same general direction as their closest neighbors; second, they fly at the same average speed as their closest neighbors; third, they fly at the same average distance from their closest neighbor and avoid colliding with them at all costs.  Following these three basic principles, they are able, as a group, to respond to their fast-changing environment with rapid, precise adjustments.

Flocking birds are what’s called a “self-organizing system”.  Organizations can achieve the same agile capabilities if the leader clarifies the vision and the organizational objectives, and teaches clear effective principles. In doing so, the leader establishes trust and increases his/her influence, while empowering each individual to make the right decisions at the right time.  In the presence of a clear vision, clear objectives and sound principles, individuals participating in a self-organizing system learn how to adjust to a fast-paced environment.  Like the birds, people will respond quickly, appropriately and in the best interests of the “flock”, without needing a controlling authority to tell them what to do.

The creation of this performance context allows autonomy.  The birds are free to make choices within the context of the principles.  A leader can create the conditions and then trust employees to operate autonomously within that context.   So doing will create the best response to change and the greatest possibility of high performance.

Stop trying to control the seeds or the birds.  Create the proper conditions instead and let them perform.  It is the natural thing to do.


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