My mother grew up in Japan and so in my childhood I learned a great deal from her about Japanese culture. Among the many Japanese arts she extolled was that of “bonsai.” This is the art of growing things small. It is a beautiful art form requiring great skill and patience.
Now, as much as I admire bonsai as an art, I do not admire it as a factor in leadership. Let me explain.
Perhaps the chief purpose of a leader is to grow things. He or she is meant to grow people, grow groups of people (firms), grow production, grow customers (markets), grow vision, and grow processes for achieving vision. Growth is the main purpose of a leader. Much growth. Nearly every kind of growth. Extensive growth.
Now, there is a bonsai factor that creeps into some leaders. Feeling insecure about what growth will demand, they start to work against it. They devote themselves, sometimes secretly, to keeping people or the firm or production or their markets at a size they can comfortably handle, a size that won’t press them too much or expose their inabilities.
These people become bonsai leaders. They commit themselves to the art of making things small. The Japanese do bonsai as an art and a test of skill. Some leaders do bonsai because they are fearful, insecure, and eager to keep the firm from pressing against the edges of their comfort zones.
I know of a leader in a nationwide firm who purposely handicaps growth in his division because he wouldn’t know what to do if expansion occurred. How do I know this? He told me so.
I know of a church in which the board worked for years against every lead pastor and then finally “grew” the church to one tenth the size it had been. They did this largely because they wanted control more than growth, their own comfort more than a church that outgrew them and threatened to expose them.
Now, what is the answer? Honesty. All leaders who hope to lead well have to be people who examine themselves and who trust others to peer into their souls and help them surface what is there. Here are the relevant questions: Do you fear growth? If so, why? Can you change? If not, why not? What changes should you make in your life as a result of your answers?
Some people need to honestly recognize that they are simply in the wrong job. They are harming their firms and themselves by capping growth out of fear. Others need to acknowledge the bonsai in their souls and drive it out. Face the fear. Face the insecurity. Get help in upgrading skills. Acknowledge your wrong and get back in the game with a new game plan.
The bottom line is this: Don’t let bonsai leadership lurk in your soul unacknowledged. Also, don’t stay in a role if you are afraid of success and working against it. This is dishonest, harmful to you and others, and, in some cases, illegal.
You are likely a good leader. Get better by driving bonsai leadership from your life. By the way, make this phrase—bonsai leadership—a part of the linguistic culture in your firm and declare war on it. People who want to grow and succeed will rally to you if you do.