26 Jan 2017 19:05 IST

The Chinese bamboo tree wisdom

A patient manager could well be mythical, but real leaders know the importance of waiting

The patient leader seems like an oxymoron. The leadership we typically prize is the impatient kind — the one who gets things done fast, immediately, who enjoys instant success, who brooks no delay. The picture we have is of the hard-charging executive who steamrolls his team, barking orders that demand immediate compliance.

But real leaders know this is not the case. Managers may have to rush around at breakneck speed, but they also acknowledge that patience is an essential leadership virtue — that it is often the main difference between good and great outcomes.

The lesson of the Chinese bamboo tree is instructive here. The farmer plants the seed and waters the soil, but at the end of the first year, he sees nothing coming out of the ground. He continues watering for the second year as well, and still nothing happens; the third year and the fourth year also show no signs of life springing from underground. And then, during the fifth year, it suddenly shoots up — often 90 to 100 feet in six weeks!

So what lessons can we draw from this?

Waiting

Waiting is difficult. In a business environment that demands instant results, the patient leader seems out of place. But the patient waiting works towards building enduring success. It helps the leader focus on what is needed for the long term, instead of meeting the superficial demands of the short term.

Paul Polman, in one of his first signature acts as CEO of Unilever, told shareholders they should no longer expect to see quarterly earnings reports. He went further and told them to look for other places to park their money if they don’t “buy into this long-term value-creation model, which is equitable, which is shared, which is sustainable.” Re-read that sentence — long term; value-creation, equitable, shared. Those are not the words of a manager. Those are the words of a leader.

He has walked the talk since that day. Hedge fund holdings used to be greater than 15 per cent at Unilever. They are now less than 5 per cent. The company too has prospered under his leadership, hitting both business goals and doing its part in creating a shared and equitable society.

Give things time

Such waiting can be extended to patience with a high-conviction business, a high-potential hire going through a bad patch, a trusted vendor who has been through some challenging times — and even patience with yourself while you learn a new sport, integrate into a new team, or, later in your career, switch industries.

In my work with students who have just moved into the work world, too many times I hear of them wanting to switch industries or roles. “It’s not meant for me,” they say. And when I ask them how long they have been in the job, the startling response is “three weeks”, or some similar timeline! You must be prepared to give things time — a job, a team, a new country or a new client — before rushing to pass judgement, or worse, opting out.

Watering

The period of waiting can be mistaken for a period of inactivity, but it is not. The farmer diligently waters the seed he planted. He puts down fertiliser. In effect, he is nurturing the seed. In response to his efforts, below the surface, the plant is busy sinking roots that will one day hold up and sustain a very tall tree. We need to do the same. We need to keep working at it while we’re waiting on it — an idea, an employee, our own growth.

The Nespresso story is a good example. The concept was innovative and disruptive — to allow anyone to create the perfect cup of espresso coffee, the same way a skilled barista at a restaurant would.

Nestlé wanted to deliver premium coffee that was easy to make without the consumer using complicated equipment. Great idea, you’d think. But how long did it take for the company to actually make this a winner? Not one year, or two but 21 long years!

Mirage of overnight success

During those 21 years, there was much experimenting, much course correction, much nurturing that eventually helped make Nespresso a towering success. Of course, this does not apply to all situations — Nespresso had deep pockets that a first-time entrepreneur may not have. For him/her, endless patience could be suicidal, but the principle is that there is no such thing as an ‘overnight success’.

Eddie Cantor put it well when he said: “It takes 20 years to make an overnight success”.

For example, we may set ourselves the goal of becoming an expert in a subject. This will take reading, researching, talking to other experts, challenging our assumptions, perhaps taking an online course. And we need to do this with discipline and rigour — even in the absence of visible or dramatic results. It is a myth to think that there is no return. The growth is happening — slowly, steadily though unseen.

Believing

Both the waiting and the watering can only happen if there is believing. That’s what led Thomas Edison’s persistence with his 1,000 attempts at inventing a light bulb before finally making the real one. It’s what kept Walt Disney going after he was told that ‘he lacked imagination and had no good ideas’. It’s what turned Amitabh into a superstar, even though All India Radio and Filmfare had rejected him.

Faith is what brings the farmer back every day to water the place where he planted the seed; faith is what restrains the farmer from digging in the soil to check progress and destroying the plant before it sprouts.

Much the same way, we have to keep believing in ourselves, in our ability to learn a skill we have set out to acquire; in a team mate or colleague who has the long-term potential but has hit a temporary road bump; a market, a product, a value system.

Powered by this belief, we will find the stamina to wait it out and keep nurturing the thought or idea until its success is visible. After all, leadership is no sprint — it is a marathon. And the Chinese bamboo tree gives us important lessons on how to run that marathon.

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