Jack Welch’s Gardening Model of Leadership

September 29, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Leadership

If you read this blog you know I write a lot about beliefs and mental models and how they filter how you perceive your environment and influence your motivations and behavior.

If you’ve read my series on my Model or taken my leadership seminar, you know that models can diverge from what you perceive with your senses and still be more effective than one you consider more accurate.

I often illustrate this effect with a few well-known examples, like Men Are From Mars, Woman Are From Venus. I’m not sure how effectively the book helped people, but the model simply and clearly enabled people to see differences between men and women. It worked despite being wildly inaccurate since, in fact, all men and all women are from Earth.

Jack Welch’s gardening model of leadership

Another model I like is Jack Welch’s gardening model of leadership, which I learned from a business school professor who know him. Until Saturday I hadn’t found Welch himself mentioning the model and told people I wanted to find it. One of my seminar’s attendees found a relevant quote and emailed it to me. Then I found a couple others.

I’ll copy my description of my understanding of the model from an old post, then post a few quotes from Welch in his words.

The model points out that a gardener doesn’t sprout vegetables him or herself. A gardener creates the environment and provides the resources for the plants to grow the vegetables. The gardener’s role is to choose what plants to grow; find a suitable plot of land; plant the seeds; provide water, sun, and protection from the elements; and keeps weeds from choking off the plants’ ability to grow.

Likewise, leaders don’t build the products their teams sell. Leaders choose what products to sell, choose what markets to enter, hire the staff, provide resources, and keep bureaucracy from choking of the employees’ ability to grow.

I only presented part of the model, but you get the idea. This model differs from other common leadership models, like command-and-control or leadership-by-example.

Let’s note first its blatant inaccuracies. People aren’t plants. Plots of land aren’t markets. Weeds aren’t bureaucratic rules or ineffective employees. If you measure a model by its accuracy, this model falls hopelessly short.

If you measure a model by how well it meets its purpose, the model succeeds tremendously. He led GE to tremendous success by the standards of the shareholders he was accountable to. Others with different models didn’t succeed like he did.

In any case, for today’s post I point out that someone created this model actively. He created it to replace other ways of looking at the same thing.

In his own words

Here are some quotes from Jack Welch incorporating his gardening model.

My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds, too.

Your job as a manager is to carry a watering can in one hand and fertilizer in the other. Pour it over the seeds and watch the seeds grow. Now, you’re gonna get some weeds. So you gotta cut the damn things out to improve the garden.

You field the best team and weed out the weakest. The weeds you’ve got to pull out if you’re going to build a beautiful garden.

The day you become a leader, it becomes about them. Your job is to walk around with a can of water in one hand and a can of fertilizer in the other hand. Think of your team as seeds and try to build a garden. It’s about building these people. Only you will know the team.

I notice he uses weeds to describe ineffective workers whereas I remember my professor said weeds described bureaucracy and red tape. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out which, if either or both, works best.

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