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Where Pottery & Pruning Meet Leadership

February 9, 2015
Borderless Leadership

There is one type of activity that I find very therapeutic. Whenever I am stressed or completely wiped out, I get active. I take a walk or get my toolbox out. The feeling of creating something new settles my soul and calms my mind. It is how I find rest.

But this is a disruptive process. It is a counter-intuitive one to the demands of my tired body. After contemplating on its parallels with leadership, I came to a conclusion that leadership is a disruptive process as well.  It does not dwell in the realms of comfort and conformity. Rather, leadership is characterized by descriptors such as engager, connector, servant, empathy, enabler, etc.

However, what happens when you are coming from a position of ‘brokenness’? There isn’t one human being who is completely perfect. We all have our flaws, weaknesses and failures. How then, can one become a leader? Is it even possible? To unravel these questions, I turned to two ancient practices that have worked time and again.

The first is from the Far East. I bumped into an ancient Japanese practice by accident. Kintsukuroi (keen-tsoo-koo-roy) is a Japanese art of repaired broken pottery. It all began after a glazed bowl that was being presented to a hotheaded military leader, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was dropped and shattered by one guest. Hideyoshi was furious!

Just before he poured out his wrath on the unfortunate guest, a wise, quick-witted man spoke up. He immediately composed a poem of the shattered bowl (now in five pieces) and wove in Hideyoshi’s name. It so pleased the military ruler that he broke out in laughter. This diffused a potentially volatile situation.

Hideyoshi ordered the finest craftsmen to repair the bowl with gold. The gold was to show off the cracks in remembrance of its story. Thus Kintsukuroi was born and the broken bowl is now of great cultural importance.

The second practice isn’t that visible to many people, but it is vital and its fruits enjoyed by many. Pruning is an art I really enjoyed during my undergraduate studies of horticulture. My fascination was how ‘injury’ causes a plant to produce better fruits, flowers and branches. Pruning is the selective removal of undesirable part of a plant: buds, branches or roots.

Pruning alters the form and growth of a plant. It is done to maintain plants flowering and fruiting), improve appearance (aesthetics) or to keep the plant healthy (removing dead or diseased parts). It is a continuous process and is carried out when necessary.

There are three leadership lessons we can draw from these centuries-old practices.

  1. At one point in your life, circumstances around you may cause you to buckle or even break. These are those moments that you may feel insignificant and worthless. The magic happens when you choose to learn from those moments. Just like the Japanese bowl, you can use the lessons to influence or build a stronger culture.
  2. How well you bounce back will determine your success. If you are to lead effectively, you need to cultivate relationships and a galvanized following. The people around you matter. Like the skilled craftsmen, they will help you back on your feet. This can only happen if, as a leader, you remain humble and accountable. Then people will avail their trust and support when you need it.
  3. Leadership is not only about execution. You need to have a good understanding of your prevailing environment. Learn, be ready to change, and adapt to stay an agile and relevant leader. There are some habits or practices you may need to abandon. It is painful, just as pruning is to a plant. But the reward is in the fruit of your work and those you lead.

To lead others, we must first accept that sometimes we are in a state ‘brokenness’. There is no shame in this. It is the first step to whole-heartedly thrive in whatever work, hobby or venture you may wish to pursue. Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

For others to become vulnerable to you, there needs to be reciprocity from you. The same goes for engagement, connection, empathy, and many other desirable characteristics. Transparency is a way of life that promotes trust and ownership. It breaks down barriers and opens up communication channels even in the most difficult of situations.

Remember, a chain is as strong as its weakest link.

By Kimunya Mugo

Source: Switch & Shift

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