The Profound Lesson Plants Teach Us About Leading People

PlantingTreesI’ve come to trust that books show up in my life for a reason.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been in a bookstore when some internal radar system seemed to guide me down the aisles until a knowing voice insisted that I “buy that one.”   The great mystery of this process is that the books I’ve ended up with have always proved to be transformational in some way.

But a few weeks ago, I thought my inner guidance had gone on the fritz.  I was staring at a book called, “What A Plant Knows: A Field Guide To The Senses” and thought for certain it couldn’t be meant for me.

But the “voice” had a way of persuading me that it was.  It seemed to be fully aware that I was no botanist, had taken “Biology For Non-majors” in college, and specifically came into Barnes and Noble to find something leadership related.

Yet just as all other times in the past, I quickly discovered I’d ended up with the right book at the right time.  And long before I’d read the final pages, it became quite clear that a profound lesson on leadership was indeed embedded in its pages.

Here’s a summary of what I learned.

According to author, Dr. Daniel Chamovitz, human beings have much more in common with sunflowers and oak trees than we ever may have realized.  Extensive genetic research proves that plants have parallel abilities to sense and respond to their environments.  Without a brain or central nervous system to guide them, plants have a remarkable protoplasmic intelligence that informs them when they are flourishing, and when they’re under threat.  Like all living things, they react positively to what is life supportive and negatively to what is not.

Consider these examples:

  • Plants are acutely aware of their surroundings.  They know when they are touched.  They can tell the time of the day, and know when light is coming from the left, the right or from above.
  • Almost all plants bend themselves toward the light.  If they sense they’re in the shade, they will grow faster in order to get out.
  • Plants know when their fruit is ripe, and when their neighbor has been cut by a gardener’s shears or is being eaten by a ravenous bug.
  • Trees warn each other of imminent leaf-eating insect attacks by sending out pheromonal messages.  Healthy trees respond by producing chemicals that make them unpalatable to predatory bugs.
  • They remember past infections and conditions they’ve weathered and modify their current physiology based on these memories.

It’s extraordinary, really, what plants are able to do to ensure their own success, survival and even botanical happiness.  But all the time I was reading “What A Plant Knows,” I was constantly reminded that human beings have far greater sensitivities to that of a tree, bush or flower.  Through their own feelings, they too seek the conditions that make themselves thrive.  They naturally and instinctively bend toward the light.

Yet, at a time when less than half of the entire population is happy in their jobs, it’s especially clear that many human beings aren’t getting the proper care and nutrients they require at a cellular level.  What’s so often missing in the workplace is the positive emotional climate that makes people blossom.

To create the optimal working environment for people today, leadership must devote itself to tending to the unseen world of human feelings.   This is because feelings and emotions have the greatest influence on human happiness and engagement.

While “What A Plant Knows” is a book which reveals a miraculous complexity of plant life, it also makes clear that trees and flowers – just like human beings – don’t really need all that much to grow and prosper.  For plants, the essentials are things like hearty soil, oxygen, water and sunlight.  For people, it’s being made to feel appreciated, valued, important and trusted.

The take-away from this book that all leaders should remember: the emotional needs in people are every bit as important as physical ones – and it’s devastating to human well-being when they’re not consistently met.

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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.