How does your garden grow?

Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.  – May Sarton

Spring is finally here in Minnesota. All of the early bloomers—lilacs, tulips, daffodils—add much-awaited splashes of yellows, reds, and purples to our newly greened landscape.

As if by design, Minnesota winter forces patience. By the time April and May roll around, after a long six to seven months of bone-chilling weather, our poise and self-control is wearing thin. At the mere mention of snow in the forecast, we begin to quietly resent any family members living below the Mason-Dixon line, and, out of spite, we adamantly refuse to wear a coat—even though the weather hovers around 40 degrees.

I can easily say that after living in Minnesota I agree with May Sarton. Gardening, or at least waiting until gardening season, is an instrument of grace. It’s an exercise in restraint. Surviving January through April is a chilly, uphill battle.

For me, gardening is my happy place. When my garden starts to wake up, I feel energized, in charge, and filled with purpose after a cold, white winter. Though after my first few hours digging in the dirt and cleaning out beds it is never more clear that gardening is a delicate dance between flower and planter. Am I in charge? Or is Mother Nature? As our botanical relationship progresses through spring and into summer, my garden is a constant reminder of the true attributes a gracious leader needs to succeed.

Gracious leaders are courageous—advocating for those without power, and tirelessly fighting for justice.

If you think about it for a moment, you probably know a courageous gardener. His yard is filled to the brim with flowers, tiny pebble pathways, and garden gnomes. Honeysuckle and clematis drip from garden arches, and basil and chives grow “hosta-sized” in raised beds and along borders. A courageous gardener cultivates lesser-known and heirloom varieties, and isn’t afraid to mix things up a bit—oregano as a border plant, chives in a window box. He may embrace a natural yard, allowing weeds to pop up here and there, or keep his landscapes designed and tightly controlled—either way, his garden style is “just outside the box”. He values rain gardens, bat boxes, and led the neighborhood revolution to approve urban chicken farming and bee-keeping. The courageous gardener works in his garden seemingly without end, but always with joy and passion. In return, his garden thrives and returns year after year—beautiful and triumphant.

Gracious leaders are wise—giving firm, kind, and equitable counsel.

Ah! The wise gardener. The one you strive to be, or at least hope to live next door to. My neighbor is one of these. He’s the first person I ask when I’m wondering when to prune or divide a plant. He’s also the first person who will let me know if I’m about to plant a shade loving plant in the sun, and the first to advise me to wrap my evergreens and feed my roses. Neighbors, a few houses down and streets away, ask his advice on everything from insect repellent to soil sampling. His counsel has improved both my garden, and my gardening.

Gracious leaders are transparent—recognizing and acknowledging their own weaknesses, and valuing and including the strengths of others.

Gardeners either have a green thumb or they don’t. Yards, garden beds, and landscaping are quick to reveal a gardener’s strengths and weaknesses. Burnt hostas planted in full sun, overgrown shrubs, untended vegetable gardens. Most of us have depended on a neighbor, family member, or friend to play the role of “master gardener” and contribute their green thumb where we have none. As example, my mom is a one-woman window-box extraordinaire. I’m not. Never does my window box look as beautiful as when she has had a hand in its design.

Gracious leaders are assertive and determined without being disrespectful, aggressive, or cruel.

If you are gardening in Minnesota, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that whether your garden lives or dies, you get a medal for determination. With luck, we have five months in our gardening season and during at least two of the five there’s still the chance of a freeze. Whenever I start to complain about the amount of yard work I’m cramming into the warmer months my wise neighbor reminds me that I have to “think of gardening as recreation”—a gentle admonishing by a gracious gardener to cut the trash talk, respect Mother Nature, and enjoy the hard work.

Gracious leaders are quick to forgive—over-reacting to success and under-reacting to mistakes both their own and others.

That perennial that didn’t come back this year because you forgot to mulch it? Forgive yourself. Those dead circles of grass in your backyard from a dog that has “to go and go and go”? Forgive the dog (and yourself for never finding time to train it to go in one spot). The neighbor kid who cut your beautiful blooms and tried to sell them back to you as a bouquet? Smile, buy the bouquet, put it in a beautiful vase on your kitchen table, and move on (and, as my mom would advise, laugh about it). When something finally goes right—when the climbing rose climbs exactly where you want it to—pour yourself a glass of wine and celebrate.

So . . . what does gracious leadership (or gardening) have to do with beautiful fundraising?

While there certainly are some people who move through the world with grace and ease, for most of us learning how to be a gracious leader is a whole different story. Its learning curve almost seems the exact opposite of its very definition. Like gardening, gracious leadership is hard work and your life will be filled with times you don’t get it right (like this very week in my case).

Grace is beautiful—to receive, to give, to be around. No matter your title—CEO, VP, Director, Coordinator, or Intern—being a gracious leader is essential for building beautiful experiences for your donors, for your team, and for yourself. I’d argue that without gracious leadership beautiful fundraising doesn’t happen.

As someone wiser than me once said, “show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.” This spring, I challenge you to think of the way you are leading in your development work, and see what a little grace might help you grow. I’m going to bet it’s something extraordinary.

What does gracious leadership look like to you?


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