Growth is fundamental to life.

(Before reading any more, please review the meaning of analogy.  I’ll wait…)

Practitioners of Organization Development seek to cultivate growth, typically, the growth of individuals that ultimately enhances overall organizational performance according to selected measures.

As an avid gardener, I have studied, practiced, and observed some of the keys to successful plant growth.  And I know that what the gardener does–with knowledge, skill, and care–greatly impacts the life of a plant and the success of a crop.

A gardener is part of a system that includes the soil, the environment, and, of course, the plants, and a successful gardener knows how to enhance growing conditions to improve plant growth for various outcomes.

The risk of my analogy, of course, is that some will all too quickly complain against comparing plant growth with human development.  “We are not vegetables! And you can’t think of your colleagues as vegetables!  We are people!”

Of course we are people.  No need to shout.

But the potential lessons, insights, and applications are simply too compelling and too powerful to ignore.  Read on only if you are willing to be compared to a broccoli plant.  Well, not just any broccoli.

This one:

This is one of the happiest plants I have ever known personally.  I would want all members of a work group to be this happy, healthy, and productive.


The plant is doing what it’s supposed to be doing, and doing it abundantly and with little guidance at this point from the gardener (me).

Here are some of the things I did to help foster the strong growth and abundant production of this plant:

  • Plant selection.  I knew what I wanted and selected the seed for the job.  The seed catalog included a strong resume.  But I would look for more than just strong credentials.
  • Germination.  I started the seeds with ideal conditions and great care, planting them at the recommended depth in an ideal potting mix.  A gentle press ensured good seed/soil contact.  A heat mat underneath the potting tray provided extra soil warmth, and frequent misting ensured that the soil mix did not dry out.
  • Light.  As soon as the seedling emerged, I provided strong light for up to 18 hours a day.  (Seeds in the ground do not need light, just moisture and warmth.)  The early days are important.  The care devoted to creating the right environment produced strong seedlings.
  • Selection.  Even with ideal starting conditions, not all seedlings exhibited identical growth, and I thinned the emergent seedlings, selecting for vigor.
  • Hardening off.  When the seedling had four true leaves and the weather outside was suitable (broccoli is a cool-weather crop, but small plants are still susceptible to heavy frost or freeze), I moved the plant outside for short, and then increasingly longer, periods of time under careful observation and controlled conditions.  A protected area, cold frame, or hot cap helped with the transition and acclimatization.
  • Site location.  Long before the seed was started I had selected and prepared the garden bed.  This included many aspects of site selection including determining available hours of sunlight, grade, drainage, and proximity of a water source.
  • Soil.  The maturing plant would only thrive in a nutrient-rich environment.  I tested the soil for key nutrients and pH, and amended the soil based on test results.  I was able to ensure the necessary nutrients in proper balance.  Tilling in well-composted humus and other soil amendments added nutrients and improved the tilth to enhance water percolation, nutrient transport, and root growth.  After preparing the soil, I did not step on it again lest I damage the soil structure.
  • Transplanting. Now hardened off, the seedling was ready to take its place in the well-prepared garden bed.  Carefully placed, tamped down, and watered in to ensure good initial root/soil contact, the plant was positioned for initial success.
  • Periodic care.  My job now was to check in periodically, which was a joy.  I looked for healthy growth, monitored soil moisture, mulched to preserve water and reduce weeds, and provided a bit of fertilizer from time to time.  If something came up (evidence pests, insufficient water, or disease), I was quickly aware and intervened as necessary.  Because the plant lived in a healthy environment, problems were rare and easily addressed.
  • Maturation.  The plant, well established in a healthy environment and properly supplied with nutrients, water, light, and warmth–the ingredients necessary for it to do its job–took off, and I marveled.  How truly happy it appeared, providing not only what was required but also that something extra, that magical discretionary effort which, when freely provided, takes performance to a new, higher level.

Well, that’s it.  Good gardening can be hard.  It takes work and some time.  Smart gardening reduces the labor and increases the yield.  But smart gardening in not learned in school nor conferred by degree.  It is a hands-on, knowledge-based craft which, when practiced with care, moves from the head to the heart.

Much like good coaching.

Learn. Do. Teach. Lead.

–Erik and the broccoli

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The More You Plant

The more you plant, the more you grow.

This seems like common sense: more seeds in the soil means more yield later.  (Quantity)

Or, the greater the variety–one of this, one of that, one of another–the more total plants. (Quality)

Or, the more time gardening–season after season–the greater the cumulative harvest.  (Duration)

Or, the more one “truly gardens” (think Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), the more one’s “self” truly grows.  (Subjective)

Or, “Yes” and “Each” and “All.”

The more you plant the
More you grow. The more you grow
The more you plant again.

This is Learn-Do-Teach-Lead.


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Speak? Easy!

I don’t have time to prepare and practice my presentation!

Have you ever felt that way?  I have.

That is, I used to until I learned and practiced some tips on preparing a speech.

Here are five powerful practices that have helped me:

1. Use the “Power of Attraction.”  As soon as you settle on a topic or theme, you will begin to notice useful bits and snippets of information flowing to you.  It’s sort of like when you drive a new red car off the sales lot for the first time.  Suddenly, it seems that *everyone* has a red car!  Why?  Because a part of your brain, the amygdala, and other parts of your neuroanatomy are activated and you are particularly alert, even if such attention is subconscious.

Now, the key is to watch for this supportive material–memories, news stories, conversations, reading, the list is endless–that suddenly seems to be everywhere.  Spot it and capture it.

2. Simplify, simplify, simplify.  Really.  Get your speech down to three main points.  Then decide which *one* point you want your audience to remember after your speech.  You are after the point that audience members will Tweet about, post to Facebook, or mention to a friend, colleague, or family member.

Now, isn’t that easier already?  Add your beginning, to grab attention and promise value, and your conclusion, to drive home your message and–voila–a speech is born!

3. Matter is mostly empty space, and often, time is mostly empty thought.  Practice grabbing time to compose a line, develop a point, or imagine your presentation.  Do not write anything down.  Do this exercise in your head.  Why?  Because your head is with you at all times, even if your thoughts are somewhere else.  And time *never* leaves, so grab it while your walking out to your car in the parking lot, walking down the hallway at work, running on the treadmill, or doing any of the thousands of ordinary things you do every day.

You will suddenly discover an amazing amount of otherwise unused or under-used time!

4. Imagine.  Just as authors Erin Macy and Tiffany Wilding-White encourage their readers to “golf with your eyes closed,” I encourage you to practice your presentation in your imagination.  And when you do, make your imagination as vivid and detailed as possible!  Use every sense and strong emotion: see yourself and your audience, feel your voice and the poser of your points, hear the applause and the thump on the lectern as you make a point, smell and taste, and feel yourself commanding the stage.  Do this for short snippets, not the entire speech.  Then string them together.

5. Memorize.  Ok, maybe not “memorize,” but  I’d like you get *very familiar* with your opening and closing.  Why?  You want to start and end strong, with no hesitation or doubt.  Give a little extra attention to these parts of your speech, enough so that you don’t’ have to worry about them at all, and don’t worry about getting them word perfect.  In fact, don’t even try.  You do not need to say the beginning and ending *exactly* the same every time.  This just introduces an unnecessary trap.  Use steps 1-4, above, to help you get your opening and closing well ingrained into your very being.

I said that there were five key points, but here’s a bonus that is very powerful:  Deliver your speech in the moment.

What does that mean?  Trust your preparation, but no amount of preparation is sufficient because the moment of your speech will have unique and unanticipated characteristics.  That’s OK.  Simply adjust as necessary and bring your entire being to your performance.
Remind yourself that you are prepared and then fill the moment with your speech delivered by your whole, well-prepared self.



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And I Said, “Yes!”

Multi-talented actor William Shatner, 80, touring in a one-man show, “Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It,” stopped by the Palace Theater in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, April 15, and, for almost two hours, his world and mine closely overlapped.

Knitting humor, reminiscence, and personal insights gained over a lifetime, Shatner spoke with love and appreciation for his life in the arts and beyond and the many people and events that have shaped his world.

Self-effacing and often tongue-in-cheek, Shatner, with great command of a voice long-trained in performance and with roots in Shakespearean theater, addressed important topics such as the origin of his–sometimes–halting way–of talking–and his coming to terms with being best known for, or at least frequently identified with, his role as James T. Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise, in the television (then then movie) series, Star Trek.

As Shatner stitched together a series of life stories, a familiar refrain emerged like a drumbeat: “And I said, Yes!”

Early in his career, Shatner declined an opportunity to become part of the inaugural troupe of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada.   When invited again the second year, he said “Yes!” thus beginning his career as a Shakespearean actor and, for the man behind the characters, lifting a self-limiting psychological veil of “No” to open a world of possibilities.

It’s how those possibilities played out that made “Shatner’s World” (the life and the stage production).  And, while saying “yes” did not always yield equally favorable results, this orientation to the possible provided opportunity and, it seems, became the basis for the ever-expanding universe of “Shatner’s world.”

Saying yes is not a panacea, of course.  Yes does not eliminate risk, assure success, or guarantee outcomes, but it does open doors.  And, while not appropriate in every situation, I don’t know how to take an action without saying Yes.

Turning his thoughts to deeper topics of life, death, and the meaning of both, Shatner comically demanded answers from death.  No direct answers were forthcoming from “the undiscovered country/from whose bourn no traveler returns,” but, as a proxy, Shatner offered the power of love, life, and of saying Yes, authentically, to both.

What will you say Yes to today?


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To Be, or Not to Be…

Today at my local Toastmasters Club I reprised, in part, the role of Prince Hamlet by enacting the famous soliloquy from act 3, scene 1.  This fulfilled the requirements for the advanced speech project, “The Monodrama,” taken from the Toastmasters Interpretive Reading manual.

My stage acting skills notwithstanding, preparing and delivering this speech proved to be (yes, “to be”) enormously fulfilling and instructive.

To complete this speech project, I could have selected any literary text of appropriate length.  I chose this speech, in part, because I already knew the first line and that seemed like a propitious start.

Beyond that, however, I immediately confronted what seemed, initially, to be quite a daunting task, an “enterprise of great pith and moment” contained in 33 lines (56-88).

To fulfill my task as an interpreter, I first had to do my best to understand the text.  This included such rudimentary tasks as understanding the vocabulary (“fardel” was beyond my ken, although the context provides sufficient clues to understand it as a “heavy thing”).  I looked it up along with “bodkin” (dagger) and “bourn” (boundary).

The more I learned, the more curious I became.

I refreshed my understanding of the play as a whole, its plot and themes, and the character of Hamlet.  To my great pleasure, I also discovered Shakespeare’s wonderfully harmonious conjoining of meter and meaning as I became familiar with each line’s scansion: iambs, spondees, trochees, and the like.

These and other rather more academic approaches to the text (read this soliloquy in the “Bad Quarto” just for fun) seemed necessary and were helpful, but proved not to be (yes, “not to be”) sufficient.  Somehow, I had to get “inside” the text even more than I had to get inside the mind of the character, Hamlet.

I had to find, or make, meaning of the text.  ‘Twas “a consummation devoutly to be wished” and necessary if I were to rise above mere rote memorization and recitation.

Naturally, my struggle for meaning began with the opening line: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.”  A line so familiar on the surface as to be almost meaningless, and that without even a cursory exploration of its deeper, dichotomous ambiguity.

As I better understood the entire passage, I began to rethink “to be” by substituting “to do” or “to make,” verbs that seemed to have more substance and purchase.  Over against “doing” or “not doing,” then, would be death/sleep or, as I recast it, “inaction,” the fear of failure, “the dread of something after death.”

It is the fear of death, in Hamlet’s reasoning, or the fear of failure in mine, “that makes us rather bear those ills we have/than fly to others that we know not of.”

Hamlet seems to come to an understanding: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”  Along with Hamlet, I had my own moment of understanding: An over weaning fear of failure and concomitant death, real or metaphorical, will keep us from doing what we might (“to take up arms against a sea of troubles/and by opposing, end them,” for example) and sicklies over “the native hue of resolution” [to do].

Ironically, the “pale cast of [such] thought” is so strong that “enterprises of great pith and moment/with this regard [the fear of death/failure] their currents turn awry/and lose the name of action.”

There it is, in the middle of the last line: “action.”  To do.  To be.

How amazing is it, the power of thought, so insubstantial, that when misguided it can divert us from the great enterprises of our lives.  With such power, is it not also the very stuff of our success?

Alive to this reality, we can guard our thoughts and, in the face of the fear of failure, choose action.

Thus, to be, or not to be, lies within us and “the native hue of [our] resolution” to face our fears, “perchance to dream,” and, through action, bring our dreams to light.  The decision is ours.

Learn. Do. Teach. Lead.


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One Tree, Three Trees

I am learning the art and craft of bonsai.  I have one tree in training, a dwarf cultivar of the Chinese elm (ulmus parvifloria yatsubusu).

This makes me a novice, gaining fundamental competence.

Although I have little practical experience in my new-found hobby, I have already learned this fundamental lesson: In any bonsai there are three trees: (1) the tree in front of you, (2) the tree in training, and (3) the future tree.  (Not all plants used in bonsai are actually trees, but most are trained into tree-like forms regardless of horticultural genus.  I use the word in this broad, artistic sense.)

Every bonsaist starts with the plant as it is.  The plant itself arouses curiosity, inviting  inquiry, research, careful examination, and even quiet contemplation.  Information gained at this stage informs all subsequent actions and guides important decisions.

I turned my specimen, still in its nursery pot, viewing it from every direction to see and understand its structure, and to discover what might be a suitable, welcoming front.  With time, and without making one pinch, snip, or cut, I began to see the tree differently.

Only by really seeing what was right in front of me–the first tree–could I begin to imagine the second, the tree that would emerge by pruning, wiring, or application of any of the bonsaist’s many other techniques.

Having trimmed the root mass by one-third and securing the tree in the selected bonsai pot, I began reducing the top of the tree.  Guided by a nascent vision of the future tree (and, in this case, the far more skillful eye and wise hand of my teacher), I cut and cut and cut, strategically, pausing often to reflect, until I had removed all of the plant material that was not tree #2.

Tree #1 was gone forever.

During this reduction process, the insubstantial invisible hand of tree #3, the future tree, influenced decisions and actions with remarkable force, presence, and reality.

“This will be the new top of the tree,” said my instructor, pointing to a single bud on what was now the upper-most remaining branch.  In his eye, confidently seeing perhaps years out, he saw the bud producing a twig to be nurtured into a branch to be trained in an upward habit.

Wrapping the trunk and branches with pliable copper wire, we continued to fashion tree #2.  As my teacher gently bent the wire, the tree yielded compliantly, adopting, bit by bit and but for a time, the shape of a bonsai in training.

Our work done, tree #2 points to tree #3.

But, in reality, it is already our new tree #1.

Three Trees in One

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What Would You Run to Do?

I was new to college at the time of this story.  New to the academic life of reading, assignments, homework, papers and tests.

And new–really new–to discovering the joy of learning.

The class: ancient history, taught by a bona fide Egyptologist.  The challenge: a research paper about some ancient civilization.  The details of this part of the story have faded a bit, but what follows I feel as genuinely now as the day I experienced it.

After lunch in the cafeteria, I ran across campus back to my dorm room so that I could continue typing my paper.

Yes, I ran so that I could type.  (IBM Selectric typewriter if you must know.)

And it was not because the paper was due later the same day.  No.  It was because the dust of the Hittites’ chariots was in my nose.  The clay in my hands yielded to my cuneiform stylus.  The clash of battle and iron axes rattled in my head, and my brain sparked and sparkled in sympathy with an explosion of new synaptic connections.

History had become alive.

So I ran.  I ran back to my dorm room, yes, to type, but really, to blossom.

Today I asked a friend, “What would you run to do?  Right now.”

I am still running.

Today, I ran home to tell this story.

Tell me, what would you run to do?

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