There is an ongoing debate about what constitutes quality leadership in organisations. The literature on the subject is vast and tends to contain too much “management speak” — making it difficult for the average person to make sense of it.

Here is my straightforward way of assessing the quality of leadership in your organisation.

My model comes from the belief that being a great leader is like being a great gardener.

If you think about it, there are many comparisons you can make between the two. For me, the most important aspect is that you don’t build a high-quality organisation, you grow it organically just like you do a garden.

To quote British learning expert Sir Ken Robinson from his book, The Element:

“Farmers base their livelihoods on raising crops but they don’t make plants grow. They don’t attach the roots, glue on the petals or colour the fruit. The plant itself grows.

“Farmers and gardeners provide the conditions for growth. Good farmers know what those conditions are, and bad ones don’t.”

Just like in the garden, there can be complicated, technical explanations to every problem or you can take a common sense approach to the subject and provide people with easy-to-apply principles that work in all situations.

Danger in the garden

Whether you are talking about a garden or a workplace, there are some things you definitely don’t want to see.

They are the signs that something is seriously wrong and that action needs to be taken immediately.

Here are my top five signs that you need to look at the quality of leadership in your organisation:


Dead plants

The workplace equivalent is people who turn up physically but are not present mentally or emotionally. We refer to them as disengaged or non-performers.

They are taking up valuable space, using valuable resources, producing nothing and making the environment look unattractive.

They are a sign for anyone watching that this is a neglected workplace.

A gardener on seeing that a plant is not doing well will review his strategy by providing the plant with more nutrients or water, giving it more shelter or moving it to a more appropriate location.

Quality leaders do the same.


Rotting fruit

Leave people in roles for too long, deny them promotions and transfers or put them in roles that don’t utilise their skills, and you will soon see the rot set in.

Just because someone is doing an effective job today doesn’t mean they can be left there permanently.

The best and the brightest among your team need to be challenged on a regular basis to keep working at their peak.

Even people who are happy to do more routine work enjoy variety in their role.

Moving people around also allows you to do some cross-training, making everyone more versatile.


Weed infestations

The weeds in your organisation are the results of a negative culture, the type where backstabbing and cliques can take hold, where silos exist and where positive behaviours struggle to stay alive.

If you think of culture as being like soil, no matter how poor the soil is, something will grow.

What you want to see are productive plants — not destructive weeds — taking over.

You need to persevere to clear away the infestation without destroying the plants you want to keep growing. Your goal as a quality leader is to keep an eye on the weeds so they never reach a critical mass.


4 Butchered pruning

We butcher people at work through ineffective change programmes and badly delivered feedback that damages people, sometimes beyond repair.

This happens because we often let amateurs be in charge of these important activities instead of getting in the professionals for some guidance before we begin.

Pruning is a necessary part of any gardener’s role just as change and corrective feedback will always be part of a leader’s role.

Sure, some plants can look a bit ugly after pruning and then bounce back. But if done the wrong way, they can be damaged beyond repair.

The same is true with people.

Quality leaders know the difference between necessary pruning and a butchered job. They know when to attempt the task themselves and when to enlist the help of professionals with the appropriate skills.


5 Vandalism

Vandalism is deliberate and is damaging behaviour designed to inflict pain and destroy the hard work of others.

Acts of vandalism are often done by people who are bored, disillusioned or vindictive.

In workplaces, vandalism manifests as bullying, gossiping and other psychologically damaging actions that are done for the same reasons. The results can last a lifetime.

Gardeners put in place mechanisms for protecting their most vulnerable plants, closely monitor their patch to ensure they minimise the impact of the vandals and get advice from local authorities on their rights for when they do catch the perpetrators.

As a quality leader, you need to follow their advice and do the same or you will be dealing with the consequences for a long time to come.

Article by Karen Schmidt, an award-winning speaker, workshop leader and facilitator with Training Edge International. E-mail or visit