Leading Like a Gardener? Really?

By Ken Garner
In March 17, 2016

In General Stanley McChrystal’s bestseller Team of Teams he promotes an unconventional model for effective leadership. Inspired by his mother’s passion for gardening McChrystal rejects the notion of the “heroic leader” and instead proposes that the new paradigm of personal leadership is that of an “empathetic crafter of culture”.

Watching his mother, he learned that if the garden is well planned and organized, is properly maintained, and harvested in a timely manner the results can be impressive. While the gardener can’t actually grow the vegetables she creates the environment in which the plants can flourish; that is, create and maintain the environment in which the plants thrive.

More specifically, the “Gardener Leader” –

  • Focuses on shaping the organization’s ecosystem.
  • Creates and maintains the teamwork conditions needed for organizational success.
  • Encourage (demand!) information sharing.
  • Empower decision making authority.
  • Keep the organization focused on clearly articulated priorities by explicitly talking about them on a repetitive basis.
  • Lead by example… you can’t separate your words from your actions.
  • Insist on free flowing dialog between departments, functions, and stakeholders.
  • Encourage subordinates to suggest courses of action.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.
  • Demonstrate personal transparency – no hidden agendas.
  • Guide, mentor, develop.
  • Create an adaptive organization – build and lead a culture that is flexible and durable.
  • Understand that the leader’s first responsibility is to the whole.

It’s clear that McChrystal’s leadership model flies in the face of the traditional command and control model that has served both the military and industry so well in the past. However, he persuasively argues that today’s world has become too complex to rely on a dated leadership paradigm. The speed and interdependence of today’s world requires the creation of an adaptable organization that combines “Shared Consciousness” and “Empowered Execution”. He argues that constant and continuous adaptation is a must.

McChrystal defines “Shared Consciousness” as a carefully maintained set of centralized forums for bringing people together to foster productive interaction and the sharing of information. He defines “Empowered Execution” as a radically decentralized system for pushing authority to the edges of the organization.

A powerful and relevant read, Team of Teams is an investment with a powerful return. It deserves a place on your “must read” list.

Powerful food for thought.

Ken Garner

President & CEO Ken Garner joined Epicomm – then the Association of Marketing Service Providers – in November 2008 as its President and CEO after a 33 year career in the printing industry – all with the same company. He joined United Litho, a heatset web magazine printing company, after receiving his undergraduate degree. Working his way up the corporate ladder from janitor/delivery driver he held a variety of jobs including V.P of Operations and V.P. of Sales and Marketing. He spent the last 12 years of his printing career as United Litho’s president. In 1994, he engineered the sale of the company to the Sheridan Group and became a member of its Leadership Team.


  1. I also encourage lead by example and encourage information sharing. Because without these you and your team can’t grow.

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