Inside HR: A 3-step recipe for cultivating great leaders (from the world of bonsai trees)

There is no difference between the DNA of a giant fig tree and a tiny bonsai fig tree. Both have the potential to be massive. To grow giants, leaders need to do the opposite of how one creates a bonsai

I recently had the great privilege of speaking alongside Professor Muhammad Yunus, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his ground-breaking work in the creation of micro-finance. There are many great insights in this for leaders.

Among his many words of wisdom was a metaphor. He felt that those living in poverty, unable to gain the miniscule capital they needed to escape from servitude were bonsai trees. In other words, they had the potential to be the large trees that their DNA was inherently designed for, but instead they were only miniature forms of themselves.

It struck me that Professor Yunus’s metaphor was equally applicable in the context of any 21st-century organisation. It tells us that, more than ever before, the role of leadership in business success is how, if done well, it drives the realisation of human potential.

Let me explain this further.

What is a bonsai?
Many different kinds of tree can be made into a bonsai form, but the most common choice is the fig tree. Fig trees can be enormous, with a crown circumference that can reach up to 300m. Their potential is extraordinary.

This same tree can be a tiny bonsai. This point is critical: there is no difference between the DNA of a giant fig tree and a tiny bonsai fig tree. Both had the potential to be massive. Only one achieved its potential.

So, how does it end up as a bonsai? There are three elements to creating a bonsai, all of which reduce its potential. They are pot containment, crown pruning and root pruning.

“What does a larger pot look like? It’s not about a bigger workload”

To grow giants, leaders need to do the opposite of how one creates a bonsai. To put it another way, leaders need to provide: pot expansion; crown encouragement; and root extension. Here’s what that means in practice:

1. Pot expansion
The larger the arena of impact, the more a person can contribute. Human beings are typically at their best (in terms of motivation, effort and results) when they perceive that the task is ‘just about manageable’. This means that they feel they have a roughly 60-85 per cent chance of succeeding if they do their best.

What does a larger pot look like? It’s not about a bigger workload. Rather, it looks like a quantum leap in scale on a key dimension. It could be much more reach, much more budget, much more strategic importance, or much more complexity. It’s the difference between a state-level initiative and a global one. It’s the difference between optimising a business model and creating a new one. It’s the difference between taking the notes at a meeting and leading a key part of the agenda. You can increase at least one dimension of any opportunity any time you like – opportunities to do so always abound.

2. Crown encouragement
A larger pot is great. But a tree won’t grow to be a giant just because there is more room available. What most trees are doing when they grow is accessing more sunlight – either growing closer to it or expanding the amount of surface area of leaves to absorb the nutritious energies of the sun.

What encourages a person to take their ‘crown’ higher and broader? It comes down to what constitutes ‘sunlight’ for a human being. Essentially, there are five kinds of sun for people. All a leader has to do is make it easier for people to access that sunlight. There are five ways a leader can either provide enablers and/or remove barriers to finding that sunlight.

“All a leader has to do is make it easier for people to access that sunlight”

People will stretch and grow if you:

  • Create more felt sense of autonomy. Find ways in every day and every aspect of a role where people can feel sovereign, feel that they are making their own meaningful choices
  • Help them identify their strengths and play to them
  • Encourage them to move outside of their comfort zone to somewhere where the discomfort will compel them to learn. This comes from both challenging them – sometimes throwing them into the deep end – and supporting them, so they know it is safe for them to do their best but still perform imperfectly
  • Make it easy for them to connect to others in a meaningful way. Tear down silos, create diverse teams and reinforce collaboration
  • Communicate in a way that creates meaning and helps people connect to purpose. Whenever possible, start with the ‘why’

3. Root extension
In some ways, this is the easiest as the foundations of long-term well-being are well understood. You can help people build strong, deep, broad roots by creating the fertile soil in which those roots can grow. That fertile soil comes from enabling (either through services provided by the company and/or by making it more manageable for people to equip themselves):

  • Good physical health. This is about nutrition, exercise and sleep
  • Good mental, emotional and spiritual health. This is about creating an operating rhythm that is driven by the long-term not the short. People can work hard but this must be complemented by opportunities to: pause, reflect and recharge; spend sufficient time with family, friends or in solitude; follow passions utterly unconnected with work; feel that work is important, but not the totality of life; and connect with colleagues about more than the work itself

Every leader can play a role in helping people become more resilient and resourceful. In some cases, it is about helping people build skills and practices that help them manage stress and bounce back from setbacks. In other cases, it is about modeling the way: taking work seriously but not solemnly; balancing hard work with time and energy dedicated to non-work activities; and showing an operating rhythm at work that achieves excellent results yet also includes time spent learning, reflecting, relaxing and connecting at a human level.

“Every leader can play a role in helping people become more resilient and resourceful”

Action steps for HR
How can HR cultivate the kind of leadership that grows giant trees, not bonsai? Here are five key actions you can take:

  1. Develop your organisation’s leaders to understand more about the impact of self-determination and growth mindset on motivation and performance
  2. Ensure that leaders are helping their direct reports to be operating in the ‘just about manageable’ space. This means leaders having regular conversations with their team members about opportunities to operate outside their comfort zone. This should not be about ‘more work’ but rather about work that stretches the person to a new level of capability
  3. Develop a culture which emphasises: connection to purpose; connection to colleagues; and a sense of sovereignty over one’s decisions. Use communications to constantly reinforce each of these elements
  4. Have a well-developed program for building and reinforcing resilience. Work with leaders to ensure they role model a way of operating that is about building mental, physical and emotional reserves, not about relentless pace
  5. Move corporate measurement focus away from predominant focus on lag measures (e.g. monthly revenue and profit results) and towards a greater focus on lead measures (e.g. engagement, capability development). While end results matter, a greater focus on lead indicators will create a stronger orientation towards growth – and ultimately drive better end results!

About the Author:

Anthony Mitchell is the co-founder and Chief Potential Officer of Bendelta. He is an internationally recognised thought leader in strategic leadership. He has been advising companies internationally for the last 25 years, working across more than 30 countries on five continents advising clients ranging from leading multi-nationals and listed companies to major government agencies and not-for-profits.

This article was first published in Inside HR. To read the original article please click here

2019-01-07T14:54:13+11:00May 16th, 2018|
Skip to content