Growing Leaders: A Farmer’s Advice

I grew up on a farm, and I’ve come to understand that growing leaders and farming have several things in common. If you’ve got a crop of leaders to develop, consider this farmer’s advice.

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Personal experience way back then taught me to look forward to summertime. One of the consistent pleasures of Summer has always been that it’s the period when earlier Spring planting and cultivating begins literally, to bear fruit. If conscientious farmers have properly prepared the ground; planted the seeds; eliminated the weeds; and, of course, if rain and sun have cooperated accordingly — VOILA! 

The fruits (and vegetables) borne from intentional, conscientious effort predictably materialize. Almost like magic! Who doesn’t look forward to, in due season, homegrown, fresh-from-the-field-to-the-table tomatoes, beans, corn, lettuce, and the like? They are nature’s rewards for a farmer’s efforts!

Still Farming, Just Growing Leaders Now

Okay, I admit it. I haven’t personally tended a garden in years. 

Nevertheless, I haven’t forgotten those fundamental farming lessons I learned long ago. In fact, without intending to insult all the hardworking, day-in, day-out farmers I know, I still proudly consider myself one of them at my core. But rather than fruits and vegetables, I’m growing leaders, hopefully, hearty crops of them each year.  

Plowing an even deeper furrow in this farming analogy, over the past four decades, I’ve been fortunate to work with several organizations whose fields of leadership growth and opportunity provided near-perfect conditions for raising bountiful crops of leaders year after year. 

Professional organizations whose corporate values provided ample opportunity (fertile ground) to raise up committed leaders. Corporate cultures in which available resources (fertilizer) were deliberately applied. Organizations whose senior leaders recognized and accepted the need for leadership succession and due leadership preparation. Senior leaders who were unintimidated, diligently preparing to eventually replace themselves (crop rotation) with a future generation of leaders capable of many future seasons of high-end growth and successful performance.  

Yes, fertile fields of leadership development opportunities do still exist. 

But sadly, woefully unproductive organizational fields can also be found. Barren (poor bench strength), eroded (high turnover) fields. Fields in which minimal attention has been given to growing (new crop) leaders. Fields overtaken by weeds (poorly developed policies and procedures) and obstacles (past precedents) because careful cultivation (methodical growth and development) was, at best, an afterthought, if thought of at all. 

Too often, those very fields have become dumping grounds in which trash heaps (bad decisions) and refuse (failed initiatives) have accumulated. In such environments future leadership growth, organization production, and bountiful success become virtually impossible outcomes.

Did I mention I love fertile organizational leadership development opportunities?

Breaking Fallow Ground

In the Spring of 2024, when a farmer’s attention turns to the next crop planting, our office received the following unsolicited—and completely unexpected—email. In part, it read: 

“I work for (company name withheld). …Just to let you know I have been to the training course of Phillip Van Hooser in the early 1980s when I worked as a manager for (company name withheld). We need management training for our frontline managers and our leads (supervisors) for our assembly lines and our warehouse. …I highly recommended you guys to them (current management) because for the 40 years I’ve been in management the skills that you taught me really helped me through my journey of being a manager.” ~ Joey

Was I thrilled? Now what do you think? I was giddy.

It’s rare (almost never) that I hear from someone who’s been through my entire management/leadership development series years later. Yes, a lot of folks have completed it over the years. But afterward, they get busy. They move on. It happens. I understand.

But the company Joey mentioned was my very first corporate client after I founded my company. For these reasons his company was quite memorable and their unwavering commitment to leadership and management training even more so. Therefore, even the specific cohort Joey was a part of was memorable to me. Now after all these years, Joey had resurfaced!

I called him almost immediately.

After I confirmed that Joey was really Joey, and after Joey was appropriately reassured that Phil was really Phil, we settled into catching up on 30+ years of career history. Remember, our last contact was in the 1980s. At that time we were both on the front end of our careers. Now decades later the end of our careers are in sight. 

Eventually, the question came up. 

“Joey, what made you recommend me for this training opportunity?”

“Phil, when I took my first management position our company provided training to help get me started on the right foot. They hired you to lead that training. That first training served as the foundation for everything I continued to learn thereafter. But you and your content laid the foundation. And that foundation was a good one. It has served me well.

“Right now, this organization has a real need for leadership and management development. This is my opportunity to help as many young managers, supervisors, and leaders as possible get the very best foundation possible. I trusted the information you shared years ago. I’m not sorry I did. And I trust the information you will share now.”

As a result, I have been contracted to lead a group of Joey’s younger managers through a complete series of my leadership development materials beginning later this summer.  

Planting, Nurturing, & Harvesting

Horticulturists tell us that once parsley seeds have been planted in prepared ground it may take up to four weeks for that parsley to sprout. Beans and pumpkins can take one to two weeks to break the surface. But cabbage, beets, and lettuce plants can sprout in as little as one to two days!

Plants are a lot like people. If the ground is prepared in advance. And if the seeds are carefully planted. It’s a pretty safe bet that that plant will eventually sprout, grow, and produce a bountiful supply of its own fruit. 

The same is true with managers, supervisors, and leaders. Carefully working to prepare an environment in advance that supports personal and professional growth and development is critical. Planting the right people in that environment is necessary. Patiently waiting is a must. 

But here’s the good news. if you do those fundamental things, you can almost bet that the manager, supervisor, and/or leader in the making will eventually sprout and grow. Some earlier. Some later. But almost all sooner or later. And once they are ready, most will continue to grow and bear fruit for years and years to come.

I encourage you… start sowing, cultivating, and tending the seeds for growing leaders today. Doing so is essential to growing a fruitful organization!

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Phillip Van Hooser

Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE, Founder & Chair, Van Hooser Leadership. A seasoned leadership expert, keynote speaker, and author, Phillip Van Hooser is passionate about developing intentional leaders who can effectively engage and empower their employees to deliver powerful results. His most recent book is “Earning The Right To Be Heard," a primer for creating greater influence and opportunities. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn.


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