21st Century Leadership Advice From The Amish

Pruning Sheers“Better to be pruned to grow then cut up to burn.”
                                                              John Trapp

Following their harvest of apples and pears every year, Amish farmers take on the chore of pruning all the orchards.

The Amish long ago discovered that trimming limbs, and removing the dead wood, has a powerful and regenerative effect.  Sufficient pruning stimulates new growth ensuring next season’s crop is both bountiful and flavorful.

But nature makes a grower pay a steep price when branches are sheared too severely.  Trees take longer to recover and fruit yields are substantially reduced.  Consequently, a fear of over-cutting makes pruning ones’ own groves a particularly tenuous and even painful task.

The Amish, however, found a brilliant solution to this dilemma, one that reveals a keen understanding of human nature.  They discovered it was much easier for them to pare-down someone else’s trees rather than their own.

On a designated day at the onset of winter, all the farmers meet, shake hands, and then set off to independently perform a neighbor’s trimming.  At dusk, the men return to the town square to express their mutual appreciation.  Each returns home certain they were more the beneficiary than the benefactor in the exchange.

I love this Amish practice as an inspiring example of what can be accomplished through true cooperation and trust.  The community has been able to thrive for centuries because of this simple yet remarkable arrangement.

But buried inside this little gem is also an invaluable insight: We’re often able to advise and help others in ways we’re far less capable of doing for ourselves. 

This wisdom is particularly helpful to anyone who seeks to grow increasingly more effective, and fruitful, as a leader.

After I completed writing the first chapter of my book, I shared it with my best friend in hopes of gaining his validation.  Therefore, it was thrilling and heartening when he later told me the quality of the writing was as good as anything he’d ever read professionally.  After congratulating me, he urged me to move on to write the next chapter.

I worked especially long and hard on that next installment and gave it to my friend weeks later in the belief it was as good as, if not better, than the work he had seen before.  And so it came as a real disappointment, and a surprise, when he told me my newest submission was unclear and needed re-writing.  He’ll refute this, but I remember him calling that work “ a mess.”  He most certainly told me that I could do much better.

What you need to know about my friend is that he’s well educated, insightful and motivated to help me always do my best work.  He and I have been running buddies for the past twenty-five years.  But our meeting every weekend for all this time has just as much to do with the conversation that goes on as it does the hour-long exercise.

Through these regular encounters, we’ve become each other’s confidantes and advisors.  We share our respective ambitions and work challenges, and solicit guidance on how best to maneuver.

And while our relationship is indeed a true friendship, we long ago agreed to call the other one out whenever we believed we were acting stupidly, being motivated by ego, or poised to be undermined by a myriad of self-sabotaging behaviors to which we were at least momentarily blind.

As it was with that second chapter, my friend wasn’t emotionally attached to the writing and could be far more objective in providing feedback.  As he proved then, and many times before, he was willing to make far deeper “cuts” than I had been open to making on my own.

After our early Sunday morning run, I went home and worked late into the night rewriting that chapter.  When I sent the revision to my friend the next day, I knew he had helped me produce far more compelling and interesting work.

Just like apple and pear trees, we leaders – like all human beings – thrive longer when we allow ourselves to be routinely pruned.

Find a trusted, fully capable and unbiased friend to disavow you of “dead wood” ideas and practices so you can grow and remain vital for years to come.  It takes courage to solicit feedback like this.  But just as it is with fruit trees, you’ll always come back stronger.

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.