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Leading with Character: Nurture but don’t Smother

This afternoon I was taking my usual four-mile power walk through the neighborhood. I was taking in the sights and sounds of life happening around me. I never wear headphones when I’m walking. I want to be present in my surroundings and experience all my walk has to offer. I look, listen, and learn…about nature and the various happenings. To me, that’s the best way to replenish and refresh my mind, body, and spirit. It’s also the best way for a leader to navigate an office environment – keeping his or her eyes and ears open to learn as much as possible about the programs and people.

I passed the home of a forward-thinking neighbor already preparing his yard for the spring growing season. A landscaping company was delivering dozens, or perhaps over 100, white bags of mulch. They peppered the small yard like a Scouts campground filled with pup tents. The grounds had been well-groomed with leaves raked, branches trimmed and sod edged.

Nurturing versus Smothering
As I passed the yard, I thought how the mulch was being laid to protect and prepare the grounds so the flowers and shrubs in the beds will be ready to flourish when Spring arrives. That led my wandering mind to think about how leaders mentor followers. Good leaders strive to nurture people so they can flourish on their leadership journeys.

But, it’s hard to find the right balance in preparing the environment to help someone learn and grow. Nurturing includes helping someone weather the environment by encouraging them as they face and overcome obstacles, recover from failure, and thus grow stronger over time. It’s easy for a well-intentioned leader, mentor, coach, teacher, or parent to take nurturing a step too far and smother someone they’re trying to help.

Developing Resilience
I’ve seen mulch piled so deeply around trees that their roots can’t breathe. Instead of growing tall, full, and strong, those shrubs and trees will wither from asphyxiation. Likewise, I’ve seen young people who’ve been so shielded from hardship or challenges that they haven’t developed the resilience needed to achieve their potential.

When I served as superintendent, or president, at the US Coast Guard Academy, we occasionally dealt with what we dubbed “snowplow parents” who wanted to clear the road for their child versus letting the child make his or her way down that road. The proper amount of mulch helps a tree or shrub fend off weeds, and it holds some moisture to sustain the tree during drier times. But, the tree or shrub still has to compete and push out roots to reach the water and nutrients in the soil.

Beware the Turning Tide
Today, there’s a lot of focus by companies and organizations on helping employees, and employees are expecting more and more from their employers. The workforce shortage stemming from the pandemic has created a temporary employees’ market, and employers are piling on the mulch. Both sides should beware. They need to be ready and resilient when the tide turns, and it will. Leaders of character will help people find the right balance by nurturing them, but not smothering them.

Look in the mirror. Are you looking ahead to best prepare your people and your company/organization to be strong and resilient to meet future challenges?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: