A mature bonsai tree commands attention. With just one tree a master evokes an entire landscape and tells a story of power, perseverance, struggle, or abundance. As I’ve studied bonsai, I realized that the art of growing these trees has much to say to aspiring leaders. 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 then, are 12 most inspiriting bonsai leadership lessons:
1. Focus on strength and directing energy, not fixing weakness. Peter Drucker told us long ago that nothing is built on weakness. In bonsai, the artist looks for a tree’s strengths. What is unique and special? What can be showcased? The artist, like an effective leader, looks for strengths and builds on those. You can be aware of weaknesses so as to manage them and keep them from hindering strength, but focus on strength — in people, in yourself, and in your team. These strengths are what produce results.
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 white pine 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. You would not force an apple tree’s blossoms open — you would ensure it had adequate sun, water, and nutrients in the soil. Then it will bloom and fruit. 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. Effective leaders are aware of their own seasons and the seasons of their teams. They work within these seasons and provide what is needed.
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 be terrifying or humiliating for another. Effective leaders understand the people they lead and learn how to maximize their each person’s potential.
4. Healthy conditions = 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. It’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, its time to examine the culture and systems they work in.
5. Appearances don’t tell the whole story. With certain trees there are times of 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. If you want more ownership, nourish responsibility and remove impediments to implementing ideas. If you want to strengthen customer relationships, remove policies that prevent staff from serving.
7. Pruning is beneficial. Sometimes a branch or an entire limb needs to be removed for the health of the tree or so its full potential can be realized. In an organization, it is a vital practice to ask what we need to stop doing. What methods, products, or services are no longer beneficial or serving the mission? With limited time, money, and people, effective leaders set aside activities that do not serve their teams and the mission.
8. Every part needs light to thrive. When caring for a tree, great attention is given to make cure that every set of leaves or needles receives the light it needs. Without this care, interior leaves are weakened and will ultimately 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. Mistakes are necessary for growth. “Killing trees is the tuition you pay for learning bonsai.” ~ John Naka. No one enjoys making mistakes, but they are the price of knowledge. Effective leaders create safe environments for their team to make mistakes and learn what to do next time. “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” ~ Albert Einstein
10. Mastery is a lifetime pursuit. I once read a bonsai master claim that the last task he was allowed to do after years of apprenticing was to water the trees. Now, after a lifetime of practice, he was just beginning to understand how to water correctly. There is always more for a leader to learn. Our environments change, our teams change, the people in our teams are themselves growing and learning. If you want to be effective, make learning an ongoing habit.
11. You cannot change the core. When selecting a tree, the bonsai master knows that some qualities of the tree cannot be changed. 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 cannot be changed later. Likewise, effective leaders know that they cannot 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. Effective leaders work diligently to find people with a passion for the mission and the skills their work requires. You cannot change the core of a tree or the core of a person, trees (and people) have natural strengths, values, and motivations. Your job is to reveal what is there.
12. Nothing is perfect. Some of the most inspiring bonsai tell a story. Perhaps the tale is of a lifetime fighting salt-laden storms blowing in from sea — or the struggle to survive hostile conditions in the cleft of a rock far above tree line. 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. Even the view of the tree is specifically selected — few trees are meant to be viewed from every angle. Leadership is not 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 a single ideal person ...
Your turn: As in bonsai, effective leaders look for strengths, manage imperfections, and aim for magnificent results.
* How do you build on the strengths of your team?
* How do you encourage what you want more of?
* How do you prune away what needs to stop?