What Building Eden Taught Me About Leading

Back in February I got the crazy radical idea of starting community gardens here in the hometown, the center of the best farming soil in the anywhere ever.

People have talked about it for years, and two people tried to get one at a nearby park, but the city nixed it at the last minute.

start with an empty field

I wasn’t having a great winter (lousy rotten winter, but the weather was great!), and suddenly I decided that I should start it.

And that’s always a dangerous thing; my VP of Engineering at ChiliSoft, Russ, once said to me “The thing with you, Charlie, is you never finish anything.”

Well, shit, Russ, you bastard. 

But it turns out that’s sometimes true. I start things that I don’t finish. I do finish some things. But I probably start more than I complete. I’m ok with that. It’s part of my charm 🙂 and definitely part of my value–I experiment.

I’m a starter. I like to catalyze things. I’d prefer that once I start things, other people pick up the torch and advance the cause (and maybe send me a check).

I catalyze other people’s ideas, too; most of my ideas aren’t completely original, but I get really passionate about stuff that really are great things that should come into being or grow or change.

Two years ago I started another cool community idea thing, and, well, my role was just as starter. Other people really wanted to do it, run it, etc, and so I stepped back after removing a big obstacle: getting the bikes from the cops.

And that’s when I learned rule number one:

if there is no leader, no one leads, and the followers have nothing to do. Then they go home

And it’s the followers who really get things done. The leader just makes them feel free to do it. (you can argue that but let’s keep this light).

the people who actually do things are to my left

Volunteer orgs are different from companies. As a CEO I listen, research, and then make decisions, and I have the authority to do that. And I expect things to be carried out.

As a volunteer, it’s a group thing, and group decisions are important. I, unreasonably, expect people to take initiative and not need to have a leader.

And I’m wrong. Someone must lead, or the followers will either wander in the desert for 40 years, or simply go home and find something else more fulfilling to do than to wait for the road to be cleared, like watch TV, or make egg drop soup, or stare at a tree.

I didn’t intend to write about taking the lead but here we are.

This time I’ve committed to leading. Mostly that’s showing up, moderating a quick meeting, and letting people come up with ideas and then say yeah, sure, nobody will mind, or no, that’s crazy, we’re not going to build a raceway through the middle of the field. Simple stuff.

I have little idea of what I’m doing with gardens. But I’m learning a lot, and one thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have to know about the gardens or gardening, or water flow or square-foot farming.

The people who know these things show up, and as long as someone’s removing the obstacles along the way, they’ll generally do the right thing for the project.

But if there are obstacles, they’ll give up at some point, because they didn’t sign up for removing obstacles. They want to be free from that and do the enjoyable stuff.

And I’m ok with that.

Rule number two: there is no rule number two. 
Rule number three: leading is often just removing the obstacles so people smarter than you can get the real work done. 

So how does this apply to startups? Or tech startups? You tell me.

my sad tomatoes

ps: I’m deeply grateful for their energy, help, guidance, and friendship. This happened because they made it happen–after the obstacles were removed. 

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