A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them. -Liberty Hyde Bailey

Though thriving requires personal effort, it doesn’t occur without the care and attention of others.  We all need leaders and allies willing to nurture and help us optimize our talents, while providing constructive feedback that helps us make course corrections.  We all need people who demonstrate their belief in our capabilities and value our contributions.  These are things that great leaders do well.  They are gardeners of people.

Several years ago, I coached a leader who had a tendency to change jobs every couple of years.  He’d enter a new organization, design a new system and then grow bored when the work was done.  Then he’d find another company and repeat the pattern.  One day I asked him, “What if instead of focusing solely on the systems you built, you focused that same energy on developing people? How would that change your level of engagement?”  He took that question to heart and spent the next several years doing just that. He became a gardener of people.

There’s an old adage, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  It may sound trite, but in most cases, it’s true.  When I think about the great leaders I’ve known, this trait of expending effort on others without expectation of personal gain was at their core.  And the person who taught me the most about being a gardener of people was my grandmother, Linnie Shannon.

It may seem like an odd choice, because my grandmother never worked for a corporation or ran an organization.  She had a small team that consisted of nine children and twenty-two grandchildren.  She only finished eighth grade.  Her corporate headquarters was a three room clapboard house on the Texas panhandle.  Her role was making sure her kids were fed, the crops were gathered and that her family survived the dust bowl and great depression.  Yet despite her lack of corporate savvy or managerial experience, my grandmother taught me so much about leadership because she was a true exemplar of how to be a gardener of people.

Linnie knew how to pay attention. She was able to “uni-task” and focus on what was right in front of her.  She was always present to those around her.  She listened, offered advice when needed and was always deeply interested about what was going on in your world.  She was the most humble person I’ve ever met, but her strength radiated through her humility.

My grandmother had a knack for instilling the confidence that you could conquer any challenge that came your way through words of encouragement and appreciation.  Her mission statement was exemplified in the way she lived the golden rule by treating others the way she wished to be treated.  She was patient and compassionate.  She knew how to imagine another’s plight and put herself in their shoes.  She taught by example and focused on what she could give, rather than on what she might get.  Her greatest ambition was to be of service, and she made a difference to others’ lives in simple ways.

My grandmother had strong principles, but she never needed to try and convince you of their importance because she lived them.  There were no surprises in her character. What you saw was what you got.  She was trustworthy.  Her temperament was steady.  She had a positive attitude and always had faith that no matter how stormy the skies, the sun would rise the next day.

I was very fortunate to have been tended by such a gardener of people in my early years.  And have also been blessed to know and work with a number of leaders with many of her traits in my adulthood.  As you think about the concept of being a gardener of people, who are the people in your life who’ve helped you become that for others?

What qualities did your exemplars demonstrate that inspired you?  How have you sought to emulate what you’ve learned from these people in your life and leadership?  What difference has this made to others?  To you?   What qualities, as a gardener of people, do you still seek to grow in yourself?  How will you know you’ve been successful?