School Leaders As Gardeners

Schools are where leaders excel.

Well, some leaders that is.

Every Headteacher has their own style and some tap into more than one approach or behaviour.

There is another type of leader that schools have that don’t really get a mention in the educational literature and that is gardeners.

I first read about this type of leadership through Leaders: Myths and Reality by General Stanley McChrystal.

McChrystal says that the gardener is a leader who cultivates, nurtures, and develops. Just as a garden does not require the gardener’s constant presence, neither do teachers. They become robust, resilient and radiant thanks to the environment that they create.

Teachers have to be trusted to get on with their jobs and for making their own decisions. A helicopter leader doesn’t let this happen but a gardener does.

The gardener creates a school environment where staff grow. This is not all hands-off though as gardeners put plenty of practical hours in and spend considerable time weeding, cultivating, planting seeds and tending.

In a sense this could be described as soft leadership because it isn’t all guns blazing – very few teachers respond well to that.

The gardener metaphor for leadership is useful to describe agile and thoughtful leadership. Consistent care and attention are vital in a school environment.

I think Moyra Mackie (2018) says it best when she says that leaders need to make sure they provide appropriate amounts of space, water, light and warmth. She says gardeners focus on:

Space – delegate more and give people opportunities and room to grow and take responsibility

Water – nourish people through regular, constructive feedback

Light and warmth – provide a supportive environment where achievement is recognised.

Moyra is an expert leadership coach and she says that there is so much guff written about leadership that actually in her experience, 10 habits stand out. They are:


Picking the right plants is crucial and so it matters who is on your team and what they do for the school garden.  Steve Wood (2016) says

Like plants, having team members who contribute more to the nutrient value of the culture (garden) than they extract, makes the culture (garden) more healthy and sustainable.

Easier said than done of course if your school has a few toxic staff as they are going to mess with the soil.

Tending the plants is the most important part of a gardeners job. School leaders therefore need to pay attention to each of their plants and be vigilant for any signs of distress and then act to make the plant healthy again.

Every gardener should spend time with each staff member, help them grow and develop and give them the resources and support they need. Leaders should focus on providing on ongoing stream of nourishment.

At the end of the day though there is only so much you can do even if you are a dedicated gardener with green fingers. As Kevin Eikenberry (2011) says,

While gardeners put much time, effort and love into caring for their plants, in the end they know that the final results aren’t completely in their control. Gardeners do their work hopefully and consistently and put the balance into the hands of nature. So too, the best leaders work to support and help those they are leading and coaching, and in the end their efforts will still be ultimately be determined by the performer themselves.

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