If you are a gardener, you are familiar with weeds. Weeds are abundant in a garden and weeding is a constant activity in the summer. Some gardeners compost weeds to turn it into nutrient-rich soil that can be recycled back into their gardens, others bag them up and put them on the curb for the city. Compost and leadership may have more similarities than one may think.

For a gardener, their choices reflect their mindset about “waste.” In nature, waste is never wasted. Weeds turn into compost on the forest floor and amend the soil so the next generation of plants can thrive. The nursing log in the forest helps the next generation of trees to root above the plants and ferns that cover the forest. Without the decomposing trunk of a downed tree, the seeds would fall underneath plants that restrict the sunlight it needs to grow. A new mindset of compost and leadership can work this same way. 

The decomposing tree trunk allows the seedling to grow on top of it. The wasting away of the tree isn’t waste at all. In nature, it is a nutrient-rich place that allows seedlings to have the sunlight and moisture it needs as it feeds off the decomposing wood of a dead tree. All these things combined provide conditions conducive to the life of the seedling. Eventually, the seed becomes a tree. As it grows, it spreads some of its roots down the tree trunk and anchors them in the soil. Over time, the tree is firmly fixed in the forest soil, grateful for the nutrients and elevation of the nursing log.

This is how nature cycles nutrients in an ecosystem. The death of a tree doesn’t create waste, it creates an opportunity to contribute nutrients in its next form. If nature was interviewed and was asked why it recycles, it would respond by saying that it creates a healthier and more efficient ecology if it continues to cycle nutrients through its system.

simple green tree symbol made inside big heap of shredded paper

Organizational Waste

If we were to learn from nature, the first lesson would be to stop tolerating wastefulness. Nature isn’t wasteful, it thinks about waste differently. Humans see waste as something to throw away. Nature sees waste as a future nutrient that will support future generations of life. Organizations often waste time, talent, knowledge, and resources. What if we valued people’s time? What if we committed to ensuring that we used people’s time in the most effective way? What would change in the number of meetings we have or how we facilitate meetings? Would we tolerate the person who talked too much? Would we stop tangents that were off topic?

Rethinking our relationship with waste starts with our mindset. Are we willing to have a zero tolerance for the kinds of things our organization wastes? If so, we would start by looking at what default behaviors we need to let go of to reset a different standard for how we behave in organizations.

If we decided to optimize the talent we had in our organization, then we wouldn’t tolerate micromanagement. Micromanagement doesn’t optimize talent, instead, it diminishes the motivation and self-directed behavior of our staff. To optimize talent, we would need to unleash it and help people continue to learn, grow, and evolve in their position. They would be redeployed in the organization so their growing skills and knowledge would be utilized at its highest level.

Organizations waste resources. Sometimes the waste is embedded in the lack of stewardship of organizational resources. We might use organizational time for personal tasks or use the supply cabinet as a source of pens and paper for use out of the office. Whether big or small having a mindset that the organization’s resources can be redeployed for personal use or wasted because of sloppy planning or execution carries a wasteful attitude into daily actions. Instead, compost and leadership should go hand in hand to reuse and recycle waste in our organizations to turn it into useful resources.

Organizational Compost

If we embraced the concept of compost and leadership, by turning waste into nutrients, what would change in the way we worked in our organizations? Would we see time differently? Would we have processes that cycle resources or knowledge to its highest possibility? Would we have a mentor program in which staff could learn from each other and develop into stronger employees?

The options of how to cycle what we waste in our organizations are many. All it takes to shift your perception of organizational waste. We need to learn to see what is wasted in our organization, decide to stop tolerating the waste you see and ask how can this waste be turned into a resource for the organization?

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based on lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net