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Going Organic! – Soil and the Organic Leadership System (I made that up)

Behaviourist and broadcaster, Jez Rose, blogs about the process of achieving Soil Association Organic Certification for his Cambridgeshire farm and home to The Good Life Project.

Every day something changes – the peas were not there yesterday but here they are today!

Our peas have broken through the soil, my garlic and shallots are sprouting strong and my potatoes (yes, the ones I planted upside down) are shooting! But something interesting happened while I was planting some more herbs up for our kitchen herb garden.

I’d been chatting with my good friend and fellow soil-lover, Blaire Palmer, about leadership. She’s looking to buy a farm to keep alpaca but don’t hold that against her; she’s actually really lovely. When Blaire left, I headed out to the greenhouse and as I looked across the vegetable garden at the sight of the fresh, green crops starting to push through the soil, it struck me that the success of your organisation relies on the effectiveness of your leadership team and that both can learn an awful lot from soil.

If the plant or flower is your product or the output of your organisation, then the roots are your employees and the lines of communication and interaction go from the organisation to the output or product and it is the soil and its’ components – just as in real life – that is the key part of success, not only because of the role it plays in nurturing the plant but the direction that the nutrients move in.

A lot of attention and time in business – way too much in my opinion – is spent looking at strategies, techniques and processes to make leaders more effective. Many of those involve targets and technical aspects of leadership. Organisations focus on the output, which is the equivalent of only looking at the plant or flower to see how healthy the organisation is when much more time needs to be spent looking at the soil: what is used to fertilise the soil? How healthy is it? What nutrients are missing? Does it need water? It is this “organic leadership system”, which we can learn a lot from in nature. There is no “top down” process in nature: the most beautiful plants and flowers are produced because the roots, draw the nutrients from the soil and feed that information up into the output. In this natural analogy, effective leadership is the soil: creating the right environment in which those in your charge thrive; have the right levels of support in order to drive their input to better the organisation.

I spend a lot of time thinking about soil now – but like to think that I’ve not been removed from every social circle because of that. The most interesting thing about the Soil Association process of organic certification is how it changes your outlook on all manner of unconnected things – the connection with nature and leadership being just one of them. You do feel a certain level of responsibility as the guardian of your soil: what I put into my soil and the choices I make will have an impact on many years worth of growing. We’ve made a choice by going organic to not use pesticides, chemicals and other nasties – they are damaging short cuts. Spending more time considering alternatives encourages you to think of other ways in which you can benefit the wider environment, too. We’ve started recycling a lot more materials on the farm that may have otherwise been thrown away or burnt. For example, rather than buying wood to create fences, we stripped the overgrown willow tree and wove our own. Where I would normally have recycled plastic plants pots, I’ve been keeping all of them and have already found all manner of ways to use them from caps for bamboo canes to stop you poking your eye out, to supports for our bug houses!

One of the organic recommendations for growing vegetables is to grow a patch of clover or other green crop to naturally put nutrients into the soil (no need for nasty fertiliser here), which you can then pull up and throw on the compost heap and plant a replacement growing crop. I can remember my Dad grumbling about clover being in his beloved lawn when I was younger and using all manner of chemicals to get rid of it. However, it’s our decision to look after our soil here on the farm and learn more about it that has educated me in just how important clover is – the bees LOVE it, especially the white variety, so it helps our bees to find pollen but it’s a great indicator of soil health, too.

The health of your soil – the environment in your organisation – is critical to producing strong, healthy output.

I was tempted to strip the lawn and treat it when we first moved to the farm. However, it was Mike, the inspector from the Soil Association, who suggested leaving it and now we have daisies, clover, at least 9 different varieties of grasses, forget-me-nots – all sorts of different types of plant. There was a time when I’d want to get he lawn mower out and get rid of all those daisies but the thing with us humans is that those things that we know little about, we quickly grow to fear and those things we fear, we learn to hate. Now I know that the plants co-habiting with the grass in my lawn are all especially beneficial, I have learned to love their presence. The lawn still looks fantastic when cut and more rich and luscious than many of the treated lawns I see – and ours is all natural.

I’d very much like for our research project, The Good Life Project, to become a corporate version of the Soil Association: encouraging organisations to embrace a “roots up” model of leadership; to focus less on systems and processes and more on the individual – leaders are people, too. This organic style of leadership encourages people to focus more on the environment they are creating and on behaviour: that’s how your ensure good “soil health” in organisations. It’s working incredibly well for us and has so many knock on effects, which here on the farm has resulted in more than 30 different species of birds regularly visiting us because of putting up more bird feeders and specific types of bird seed; knowledge that we aren’t damaging the environment with our gardening and growing methods and richer, brighter and more tasty crops, too.

Jez Rose is a behaviourist, broadcaster and Faculty Lead of The Good Life Project. A recipeint of the Beverly Hills Book Award, he is recording his experiences of setting up an organic farm on his blog.

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