Leadership and Main

Bettering Others and the World You Live In

Growing Tomatoes and People

growing tomatoes and people

The process of growing tomatoes and people have a lot in common. Yes, tomatoes and leadership! A gardener tends to the growth of plant, a leader tends to the growth of people. The intentions of a gardener and a leader are the same, growth of what they care for.

There are nine and a half acres in Canton, Georgia that are extremely special to me. It is a piece of property that my Maw Maw and Paw Paw bought back in 1996 that we fondly refer to as, “The Land.” I spent many springs and summers as a teenager gardening alongside Paw Paw there. I learned the value of hard work and got to see the literal fruits of that labor.

My grandfather passed more than a decade ago and the garden at “The Land” sat unattended to for most of that time since. If you have been following Leadership and Main for a while, you know that last summer we resurrected the garden. Every time I pull up to the property, open the gate, and drive down that dirt road, it still feels as it did when he was here.  Sometimes I feel like when I turn the corner, I will see his truck parked in the same place he always parked.

growing tomatoes and people the land
The garden at “The Land”

In this week’s post, we dig into four things that the process of growing tomatoes and people have in common:

Proper Placement

Whenever you buy a tomato plant, it comes with a little white tag stuck in the soil inside the container. The tag tells you the proper spacing, planting depth, and amount of sunlight the plant needs to grow. It essentially lists all the conditions necessary for the plant to successfully grow.

growing tomatoes and people tag

A tomato plant requires six plus hours of full sun. If you plant it in the shade, it cannot thrive. If you plant it in full sun where the tag tells you to, you guessed it…it can thrive. You are well on your way to developing your green thumb now!

The same is true for people. People need to be placed in the right conditions for growth. The classic example I have always heard is an organization promoting their top salesperson to management. That person may be killing it as a salesperson, but management may not be the right environment for that person’s growth. As leaders, we have a responsibility to properly place people in the right spot on the team, with the right conditions for growth.   

Maturity Time Table

There is another thing that those little white tags tell you on a tomato plant, the projected maturity time. In the gardening world that means when the plant is expected to bear fruit. It varies from variety to variety. Some varieties tend to produce fruit earlier in the growing season than others. There are also indeterminate varieties that produce fruit throughout the season and determinant varieties that produce all their fruit at one time (kind of like VH1 One Hit Wonders of the gardening world for my generation).

Leaders must be cognizant of the maturing time for a leader. Do not be fooled into thinking this has anything to do with age. Too often lack of maturity in the leadership world, or the ability for a team member to bear fruit, is mistakenly attributed to age. Just like tomato plants, there are a variety of people who mature at different times.

It is our job as the leader to read the label of growth indicators in a person and establish when they will best bear fruit for the organization. It is also our responsibility that they don’t just produce all their fruit at once and can sustain over time.

Pruning is Required

The thing about gardening is that there is no one way to do it. Everyone has a theory or a particular method that was passed down to them. Specific to tomatoes, you should prune them. Pruning means removing parts of the plant to promote growth in other areas. It is not a pretty process, but a necessary one.  You may even feel like you are hurting the plant in the process.

One of the things I like to prune on a tomato plant are suckers. Suckers are a little off shoot that grows where a branch meets the stem of the plant. In my method of pruning, I like to take them off. The suckers require energy from the plant and by getting rid of them, the plant can focus its energy on bearing fruit elsewhere.

In the leadership world, pruning is a necessary process in promoting growth. Discipline is a form of pruning.  It is not easy for most leaders, but is a necessary part of leading people. Discipline and punishment are not the same, please do not confuse them. Discipline molds us and shapes us.  Punishment tears us down and keeps us there.  

Discipline is a mechanism for pruning those things that do not produce fruit in our people and positions them to focus their energy on areas of their world that will produce.

Give Necessary Support

Tomato plants need support. They typically do not do well just sprawling out over the ground. Most traditional gardeners use cages, trellises, and stakes to support the plant to keep them off the ground. I like to use a method called the Florida Weave where I keep them propped up with string tied off to posts. Every few weeks, I keep adding string as the plant grows taller in order to support its growth. Whatever method a gardener chooses, the intent of the support mechanism is to help bear the weight of the plant, especially as it grows bigger.

Leaders must provide support to their people. The nutrients of support for people include encouragement, affirmation, gratitude, and empathy. These are just a few of the key nutrients. Any effective strategy you choose props those we lead up and keeps them from getting stuck on the ground. Leaders should carry the weight of the growth of their people. It may get heavy at times, but it is a necessary burden to bear for our people to grow.


Comparing the process of growing tomatoes and people may sound silly, but there is so much the two have in common. I chose to stop at these four ways. For me, it is so much more than growing tomatoes.

Gardening is one of my escapes. It is an art that requires attention to detail, adapting to the environmental conditions, strategy, work ethic, and so much more.  Sounds like leadership, right?  More importantly, it provides me with a connection to my grandfather who taught me so much about life and leadership.

Leadership Isn’t for Everyone

Just like a good old tomato sandwich (recipe for non-southerners: two pieces of white bread, freshly picked sliced tomato, mayo, fresh cracked black pepper, and a generous amount of salt), leadership isn’t for everyone! Growing plants and leaders can both prove difficult.

In fact, Paw Paw once told me, “James…the hardest thing you will ever do is manage people.”  A very true statement.  What he never told me was something that I had to find out on my own…there is absolutely no greater reward than to watch someone who you have invested time and energy into grow and succeed. 

Leaders bear fruit through the lives of others.  Who are you growing today?

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