Leading with Nature

walking in partnership with nature

Walking the Stalk: Leadership Lessons from the Garden


The community garden relies on goodwill and a chain link fence to protect the gardens.  My 17' x 30' plot is partly covered with plastic to keep weeds down while I slowly reclaim parts of the garden for production.

The community garden relies on goodwill and a chain link fence to protect the gardens. My 17′ x 30′ plot is partly covered with plastic to keep weeds down while I slowly reclaim parts of the garden for production.

One year into my tenure as a community gardener, as I unearth a tangle of mint and mugwort roots, I remember those distant first mornings digging up broken bottles and old shirts. When I first saw the plot and was informed it had “issues,” I took a deep and fearless breath, knowing that I love a good challenge. Being a corner plot close to a sidewalk in a densely populated residential neighborhood, my little rectangle of earth has long been viewed as a handy place to throw coffee cups and cigarette ends. And all plots, not just corner ones, have suffered from theft of the bounty: corn, tomatoes, beans, and peas.

In the first weeks as I piled up hitherto buried treasures (cast iron utility markers, plastic bags, and old shoes), I reflected on the community garden as an organization with physical and social boundaries. There were gardeners who were insiders, and people walking by who were outsiders. I wondered what I would learn about organizations, leadership, and myself during my adventures with weeds, seeds, soil, and the elements.

Seeking to Create New Dynamics

For one who adores sifting out roots and stones with her bare hands, happening on broken glass is a bit dangerous, so my first desire was to stem the flow of new trash in the plot. One obvious approach would be to strengthen the physical barriers: build up the four-foot, chain-link fence with chicken wire and other materials, and grow tall plants like morning glory vines, sunflowers, or climbing roses to create a barrier between my plot and people walking by.

Yet being a natural practitioner of polarity management, I suspected there would be complementary strategies that did not involve building barricades. (Of course, others may have already tried my complementary strategies to no avail! Our knowledge management system in the community garden is a bit haphazard!) So yes, the amended fence is increasingly un objet d’art brut. I also removed trash as soon as I found it, a strategy that is documented in The Tipping Point as a powerful way to encourage respect of shared spaces. And, I would take the seemingly opposite tack, and engage with those who may have been tempted to trash or filch.

My Experiment

Now, I will never know who exactly lifted last year’s corn harvest, nor do I care to know. (I am starting with the hypothesis that “outsiders” have been the culprits since the insiders have agreed to abide by an honor system.) So, I wanted to know something about the people who walk by and how they experience the garden. I went outside the chain link boundary and walked around the entire garden (made up of about thirty plots). On my side of the garden, walking down the sidewalk, sweetpea and sunflower greens leaned into the sidewalk space. By the end of summer 2010, one could hardly use the sidewalk due to larger-than-life foliage. As gathering places for trash and dead stems and leaves, the stalks were also quite unsightly: nothing much to enjoy or admire.

My balancing strategy, therefore, was to create beauty and openness for pedestrians to enjoy, with the idea that a feeling of mutual respect would develop. Over the winter and spring, I cleared the sidewalk area, and planted some herbs and flowering plants at the border. I also speak to people who walk by. Here is a summary of my two balancing strategies:

Clarify and assert boundaries     AND     Build relationships and respect

Additional ways to talk about building relationships and respect include “stakeholder engagement” and “community building” as my colleagues Tony Bond and Skip High point out. Everyone who is touched by the garden, from county executives to people who catch the bus nearby, are stakeholders who can impact and be impacted by the garden. As many authors have noted, stakeholder engagement, community building, and similar processes are powerful and empowering for all involved. They are also good financial investments.

Early Results

First: I am enjoying the garden much more, because I love the beauty of the new plantings and open space near the fence.

Second: It is fun to speak with passers-by, many of whom hail from agricultural communities in Africa or Latin America and few of whom are plotholders. They often ask what I am growing and how to get a plot. One gentleman from Sudan told me that he grew cassava, onions, and maize back home, and that he could dig the entire 1/3-acre community garden in four days. After surveying it a bit more, he said, “no, in two days.” Some Salvadorean and Guatemalan gentlemen stood with this gringa as we all wracked our brains to think of the Spanish word for the cabbage growing along the fence. We succeeded in the end: el repollo.  These delightful exchanges are the non-edible fruits of the garden.

Third: Very little trash is being thrown into my plot, and so far there has been no theft.  (I will begrudge the first ripe raspberries to mama mockingbird, who I am guessing fed them to her ravenous teenagers.) I may never know the precise reasons for the new status quo. I like to think the new arrangement is meeting some needs of the passers-by: full use of the sidewalk, something beautiful and tidy to look at, a sense of being welcome and respected, a source of nostalgia for their own farms and home-grown produce, or awakening pride that they could teach the gardeners a thing or two about growing food crops.

Emerging Lessons

I am still observing and experimenting. The early results suggest that as leaders, we need to develop radar for identifying balancing strategies, so that we can attend to blind spots in how we are relating to their larger world. Without the balancing strategies, the negative side effects of the habitual or preferred strategies (e.g., build barricades) can overwhelm the positive effects and become counterproductive, and may even reinforce and deepen the original problem.

So, what did I learn about myself? Well, colleagues tell me that I am a risk-taker: that I am comfortable with the discomfort of engaging with people and new approaches, knowing the twists and turns of the collective creative process will produce something more enduring and impactful than what I can produce on my own. In the case of the garden, I am left with the sense that I am co-creating the garden in community with insiders and outsiders.  (And of course with the plants and animals … and that’s for another blog post!)

Finally, the two balancing strategies have something in common: presence. The barriers and quick clean-up suggest a firm presence about what is tolerated. The engagement and openness also communicate presence—not only in the message sent by attractive plantings near the fence, but in my own physical presence in the garden as a greeter, neighbor, and learner.

Share Your Stories

I called this blog post “Walking the Stalk,” because we can practice being aware of options and possibilities in any area of life. In fact, the more remote it seems from our organization, perhaps the better, because we often carry different sets of unexamined assumptions in different areas of life. According to polarity management theory, using well-defined balancing strategies in the right proportions over time will pay off in any area.

Please comment below to share related experiences:

– What insight did you gain from reflecting on leadership in an area that seems far removed from the context of your professional leadership?

– How did you employ two seemingly opposite strategies to achieve a balanced approach to a situation?

Please share this post with a friend, and I will keep you posted on my experiment!


Author: openingcreativity

Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD, is Principal of Opening Creativity LLC, which helps nonprofits & multi-sector teams reach their highest potential through participatory processes, leadership development, consensus building & more. Please visit Opening Creativity's web site at www.openingcreativity.com.

12 thoughts on “Walking the Stalk: Leadership Lessons from the Garden

  1. Thank you for sharing this story. It strikes me that there are phases in building good relations between the communities of “insiders” and “outsiders”. First you have removed nuisances. Second you have enhanced communication. Third you have shared beauty. Perhaps now you could share bounty. A shelf accessible to passerby could be a place where gardeners could offer excess produce for free to people who might want some of it.

    • Hi Anthony,

      You’re welcome and thanks for your observations about phases in building good relations. I think your idea to create a shelf for sharing bounty is a great one.

      BTW… a community garden is a great place for site-specific improvisation with music and dance…

      Cheers, Kris

  2. I’ve found that when a street side planting looks like somebody cares about it, people respect it more. I’ve seen people walking their dogs pull them to another area that’s not so tended for them to do “their business”.

    • Hi Nancy,
      Thanks for your comment!

      Your story about dog walkers respecting tended areas speaks to the research that a very high percentage of communication happens nonverbally, as is indicated in this article and many others. That is why so much effort goes into preparing a home for sale, for example. The first impression can establish the dynamics of a relationship.

      Are you a community gardener?


  3. My first exposure to polarity management in action. I am moved by the openheartedness demonstrated in your garden experiment. There seems to be an underlying assumption that if given a chance to express themselves to a caring other, people will choose to do the harmonious thing.
    Thanks for the lesson reminder in another context

    • Hello Jacqui,

      Thanks for your comment! It’s true that for many decades we’ve been living with the opposite assumption. Over the same decades, experiments and theories have been emerging that show the deep human desire to connect, even when initial appearances are to the contrary. Perhaps there will always be both darkness and light, for life cannot exist without them both, and there seems increasing hope for self-empowerment and shared meaning in recent years.

      Best wishes, Kris

  4. While you may have lost stalks of corn, you have gained much by your stalking story. I love the concept of Polarity Management, and this is a special real-life example. Interestingly, the moment I logged on to your blog to read your article, my gardeners arrived to tend my property. The few edibles I have, I tend to, but my gardeners keep the place beautiful for neighbors in the front and friends in the back.

    • Hello Jeanie,

      Great to hear from you and thanks for your comment. Yes, it’s a good point that we can recoup “losses” if we count the learnings and evolution that come through them!

      I love the dovetailing of your gardeners showing up at the same moment you opened the blog. We live in a complex and surprising universe!

      All the best, Kris

  5. I love how you integrated the Polarity of Care for Part AND Care for the Whole in your approach. What struck me about your post is that in your risk-taking, trust, and openness to learning and relationships, you have probably garnished considerable support from the collective that will assist in sustaining the garden in many ways and on many levels. Briefly, the upside benefits of Caring for the Part=Freedom and Uniqueness. The upsides of Caring for the Whole=Equality and Connectedness. If you had overemphasized the Part without the Whole, you would have created barriers and isolation. If you had overemphasized Caring for the Whole to the neglect of the Part, you could have opened yourself up to a loss of what was important/meaningful to you about that unique space. There seems to have developed a wonderful synergy — a generative element — (a “presence”!) that is the result of achieving both upsides of freedom/uniqueness and equality/connectedness. That’s tapping the polarity/ies! Nice! I look forward to hearing more and learning more from your wonderful experiment and experience/s.

    • Hi Cliff,

      Thanks for translating the story so beautifully into formal Polarity Management terms. What I love about Polarity Management is that there is something positive about the values that we, due to unstated fears, tend to devalue. As you indicated, the healthy and shadow sides are freedom/uniqueness and potential isolation, when emphasizing the Part. And the healthy and shadow sides are equality/connectedness and potential loss of something valuable when emphasizing the whole.

      I guess I was paying attention in your Foundations of PM class! : ) And of course, when we learn PM, we discover it is so natural and sensible that it was there in us all along, and just needed to be re-awakened.

      Cheers, Kris

  6. Thank you, Kristen, for your work in the garden. You are right that community gardening is mostly about community – a vision I hope we can share with others and on which we can build. Thanks for articulating that with your stories and blog, and for reaching out to others. I look forward to more of your thoughts about this adventure!


  7. Pingback: Update: Stakeholder Engagement in the Community Garden « Insight & Interaction

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