I’ve always been a well-meaning but neglectful gardener, so bindweed does tend to get the upper hand in my garden. I was just getting my hands in the soil for the first time in a few months and, noticing how the leafy white-trumpet-flowered creeper had spread since the last time, I exclaimed to my partner “Bindweed! The most successful of plants”. And then I stopped in the midst of teasing those soft, brittle white roots out from the stony soil, and said out loud “Actually, is this success?”

Certainly, if you leave bindweed to its own devices, it grows and grows and outperforms other plants. Certainly, it has its own beauty: spreading dark green shapely leaves and elegant flowers as it winds its way tightly and tenaciously around every object it encounters: other plants, garden tools, fence posts, furniture, tree stumps. It clings to and overcomes everything in its grasp, progressively covering the garden in an uneven carpet of undulating foliage concealing everything beneath, strangling those weaker than itself. That’s a kind of success!

If only bindweed did not have to take everything over! If only it could keep its own dignity yet live alongside other plants and contribute to the diversity of the garden! But once rooted, it is almost unstoppable. If you chop it down, the smallest piece of root remaining in the soil sprouts a new plant. That kind of success is a failure for the whole garden.

My son, seeing me struggle to remove the roots of the bindweed quipped “Why don’t you just poison it?”. “It’s an idea”, I replied, “but we would also poison the soil, and kill off the insect life, which will in turn poison the birds. I would then become responsible for harming living things”.

“Couldn’t you just poison the leaves of the bindweed?” he persisted, watching me do the back-straining work of intensive weeding. “Yes,” I replied, “but then the poison would go with our garden waste to the green waste dump and turn up in whatever compost they make out of that…” In the end, I think I convinced him that the only way to manage bindweed is to patiently and painstakingly remove each root by hand and dispose of it in a big, hot compost heap. This, for those of you who have never attempted it, is a labour of love!

Labours of love cannot be rushed: this one requires sensitive hands a skilful trowel. If you go at bindweed with annoyance and impatience you will lose. Removing bindweed from your garden is a job that cannot be done in anger. You have to make peace with the pest of a plant.

All living systems thrive on diversity. Human systems, too, are living systems – an integral part of the earth’s biosphere. How useful is the example of bindweed in my garden to a consideration of diversity in human systems, where ‘pride and prejudice’, culture and language play such a definitive role? One thing that’s always struck me, is that diversity that succeeds in human systems is not a static, stand-offish, treading-on-egg shells variety of diversity. It’s not window box or tick-box diversity. It is earthy and messy and requires us to graze and soil our hands in compost of our common life. In the next instalment of the Leader as Good Gardener, I make a case for setting aside a static view of diversity as a set of categories or characteristics in favour of a much more dynamic, interactive process requiring conscious leadership and intentional cultivation.

A pink rose against dark green foliage

The Leader as Good Gardener in the Human Garden 

Diversity is essential to the health and sustainability of all living systems, including human ones: it means so much more than the separate, static categories – ‘race’, age, disability, gender, religion, class etc – to which it has been reduced. Do you notice that all of these categories involve ideas of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ and the domination of certain groups over others? Diversity could be about our unique gifts and qualities as individuals and living, growing cultural groups. It could be about how everyone, and all communities, can contribute to making the greater whole, well, more whole. 

‘Tick-box’ labels for producing empty metrics that sit on shelves, effecting little or no change do a disservice to the rich, complex living experiences through which we are both wounded and gain in wisdom. I am not advocating that we stop monitoring for group outcomes by ‘race’ or gender etc. What I am saying is that this is just the ‘A’ in the ‘A to Z’ of reclaiming diversity as a force for life – and if we don’t do something useful with the data we gather, and go beyond data to improve the actual experiences of people in our businesses, hospitals, schools and communities, our efforts are worse than pointless – they are damaging.  

Human life is complex, contradictory and ever-changing. A thorough understanding of diversity involves taking in the interplay of lived experiences, viewpoints and practices, the dance of diversity, in which we all have an impact upon one another. If relationships are equitable and reciprocal, allowing each their dignity, this impact can be healthy and life-supporting. If not, the impact can involve injury or sickness of various kinds. Sexism, racism, class inequality, heterosexism and ableism can be seen as systemic diseases that we cannot help but catch by having to root ourselves in afflicted soil.  Everything we know about unconscious programming tells us so. Diversity has the potential to be symbiotic and synergistic. It always involves some degree of competition, tension and even conflict. But none of these need be overwhelming or permanent. Relationships between us, as between different species of tree in a forest , can be mutually challenging, defining and beneficial over lifetimes. 

The fact is that we humans need each other – and we need a diversity of plant and animal relations – in order to live well. We therefore have an intrinsic self-interest in the well-being of others, Narcissistic self-interest is a delusion based on the false idea that any of us can ultimately succeed at the expense of others. Contrary to the hyper-competitive evolutionary model of ‘survival of the fittest’, today’s life sciences are increasingly recognising that the most sustainable living systems thrive on co-operation and reciprocity among members . Harming relationships amongst living things – including people – by disrupting our interconnection and depleting diversity may lead to short term gains for some, but also lead to longer term sickness and decline for all. Some would say it violates natural law. Either way, it may ultimately lead to our extinction . 

The gardener who, to save time, money or effort, uses poison to grow a beautiful garden may not seem to harm the earth in a profound way. And their garden may well grow and be beautiful. But this approach is pursued at the expense of immediate damage to insect, bird and microbial relations, upon which healthy soils and ecosystems depend. Should too many gardeners take this approach, harm comes to the earth’s bigger garden. The ecosystem becomes impoverished and all of us are the poorer. 

The job of a good gardener in the human garden is to organise with others minimise harmful, and to foster healthy, sustainable and productive, relationships among people with different characteristics, gifts, qualities and attributes. The leader as good gardener allows individuals members to flourish, whilst at the same time taking care of the whole by nurturing common purpose and supporting relationships through respect, listening, humour, positive regard and reciprocity. This does not negate a healthy element of competition – as individuals vie to out-do each other in quality and excellence. However, it does not make a virtue of competitiveness for its own sake, or allow it to overshadow the importance of co-operation toward agreed common goals. 

The best workplace relationships do not shy away from the reality of our need for each other – nor our right to disagree or our right to privacy and autonomy. They allow each individual to be themselves and share their distinctive gifts. They accept that tension and occasional conflict arise in many, if not most, human relationships – and they work through them by building the two sides of communication: deep listening and honest speaking. 

As you are reading this, it will become obvious that the presence of diversity alone cannot guarantee inclusion – any more than the presence of a pretty set of window boxes adds up to a healthy garden. In the absence of good leadership and culture, diversity can in fact lead to greater antagonism and dysfunction. I will never forget Janet, a manager who cornered me at an EDI networking event to bemoan the diversity in a team she used to lead: “The African Caribbean team member was at odds with the West African, the Bangladeshi did not get on with the Pakistani, the Irish colleague rubbed the English colleague up the wrong way. When a post became vacant – I went to HR and said ‘No more diversity PLEASE!’…” Not expecting this outburst, I was not quick enough to at the time to ask Janet the obvious question: “What is your ethnic or racial location and how do the team feel about you?” or “How are you promoting a culture of equality, inclusion and respect for difference to build a common purpose?”

We are all familiar with the disuniting potential of diversity. From differences of perspective and opinion to conflicting styles to unhelpful assumptions, prejudices and put-downs, to harassment and bullying. If leaders ignore their own diversity and their position of authority and influence, and if there is a prevalent culture of conformity, fear or indifference, the result is hazardous, particularly for minoritized employees. 

Inclusion is tough. To be meaningful it has to get off the page, out of the soundbite and into action; it has to challenge the existing structure of power and decision-making to turn up the volume on marginalised voices and ensure they are listened to. It’s about cultivating the soil – the culture – of the team or organisation over time. There is no quick fix. 

To return to the gardening metaphor, diversity is not about the number of different flowers you plant, how pretty they are, or how you arrange your window boxes: it’s about season after season nurturing a soil that is capable of sustaining a variety of life under climactic conditions which may be propitious or adverse. Just as the good gardener supports inter-relationships among the plants (and insects) that are life-enhancing  and helps species to thrive in the wider climatic environment, the conscious leader takes every opportunity to build stronger connections among their team. The devil, as they say, is in the detail: it’s the small things that people notice – such as a subtle shift from after-work ‘drinks’ at an inaccessible grade listed pub, to a wider range of socialising opportunities that may suit recovering alcoholics, religious teetotallers, parents of small children and physically impaired colleagues; such as implementing simple etiquette in team meetings to ensure inclusion of a D/deaf colleague who lip reads – not just once, but at every meeting – without having to be asked. Conscious leadership also means being the thorn in everyone’s side: questioning the organisation’s alignment with its own values, challenging the Boardroom or Conference with an all-white, all-male or all non-disabled membership, inviting divergent ways of thinking rather than conformity. It means being willing to be unpopular. 

A conscious leader cannot paint themselves as somehow ‘diversity neutral’ – a disembodied intelligence with no diversity location: they must use their positionality and influence to build relationships of awareness and mutual respect. They must get across the detail as well as the big picture of inclusion. They must be willing to learn and follow, listen and work together, as well as ‘lead’. Perhaps most important of all they must be willing to get egg on their face – and learn to wipe it off with a smile. 

Diversity simply does not work without inclusion, so someone needs to stand for inclusivity and model it – however imperfectly – in their own behaviour – and that someone is you. 

#leader #consciousleadership #diversityandinclusion #diversityequityinclusion #humanleadership #livingourvalues #consciousleaders




 The word whole comes from the root meaning ‘healthy’. For a wonderful exposition of a more holistic view of diversity, see Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk, which lambasts the narcissism inherent in prevalent cultures of domination and the idea of ‘diversity’ they spawn. 

2 See Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree for a fascinating account of how trees help each other out 

3 See Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass for a poetic blending of indigenous wisdom and western science in the understanding of living systems.  

4 Vandana Shiva’s Oneness vs the One Percent is a diatribe against this doom scenario. A controversial must-read for anyone seeking thought provocation about the future of humanity. 

5 This Harvard Business Review article explains why ‘just add diversity and mix’ does not work –

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