Lessons on Leadership from a Tomato Plant: Are We Inadvertently Stunting Growth? (Our Own/Our Employees?)


For everyone in the southern hemisphere, here is a nice summer time story, and for the folks in the snow, I hope you enjoy a warm perspective during these cold days.

Lessons on Leadership from a Tomato Plant

My wife, daughter and I live in an apartment in Santiago, Chile, a city of 5.6 million people. I grew up in a small town on the coast of Maine, so a few years back when spring hit, I wanted my daughter to experience having a garden. We went to the hardware store, bought little plastic containers, tomato seeds, and a small bag of soil, and planted our own little farm on our balcony.


After a few weeks of watering and sun, the seeds sprouted and continued to grow. After a month, the plants started getting big, so we transplanted a third of them to a planter/window box in the front of our building. In days, the transplanted tomatoes were double the size of those left behind. After witnessing the change, we transplanted all but two plants (due to lack of space), and like the others, they grew exponentially faster, while the plants left behind stayed the same size.  Within six weeks, the tomato plants flowered and started to produce fruit, the other plant had not changed.


What we witnessed in this unintentional experiment was a phenomenon studied by Hendrik Poorte and colleagues at the Julich Research Institute in Germany. (The Study)

The researchers took MRIs of the 80 barley plants and found that the roots would grow until they hit the side of the pot, and then seemed to send a signal back saying
“Stop growing.”

They later reviewed 65 studies of various species and found the same thing.

On average, doubling pot size

allowed plants to
grow 43% larger.

Are We Inadvertently Stunting Growth?
(Our Own/Our Employees?)

I know it may seem like a stretch to compare people to tomato plants, but having worked as an executive and personal coach for the last ten years,

I have witnessed the impact when people feel like they are in a place where there is no room to grow. I have also watched people who were transplanted via a new challenge, role, team, function or organization, immediately blossom once in a container where they had room grow. 

According to Gallup, the number one reason people give for job change is career growth.  Sometimes the best thing for ourselves and our organization is for people to move on to better opportunities.  That said...

How many times do we lose good people prematurely because we didn’t explore expanding the container, or we didn’t create cultures where people flourish?


Do you or your people feel like they have room to grow or Do they feel their roots have hit the side of the pot?

Follow Up Action:

Organizations & People Leaders
Do your people feel like there is room to grow in your organization? Do you know what and how your people want to learn and grow personally and professionally? This week, take a few minutes to ask them. Work with your people to design creative ways to help them reach their goals.

  • How do we support people to learn and grow personally and professionally at our organization?
  • Do we offer tuition reimbursement so they can go back to college?
  • Do we support people to attend conferences, take courses?
  • Do we offer training?
  • Do we encourage people to feel like they can openly share ideas?
  • Do people feel like they can take risks and try new things?

Once you know how people want to grow and in which ways, create opportunities:

  • Cross train people in different functions
  • Create unique learning opportunities
  • Offer workshops and seminars at work
  • Invite people to attend senior meetings
  • Offer lunch and learn workshops
  • Use your network to pair people with mentors in the roles or fields they want to work in.
  • Create a position or opportunity for them to develop the skills they want to learn
  • Do they want to develop their public speaking? Assign them to present at your next all staff meeting and hire a
  • speaking coach to help them prepare
  • Support someone to attend a conference
  • Support people to grow outside of work by getting a degree. Do you offer tuition reimbursement or flexible schedule?

Feel like you meed help to generate ideas with your team? Consider running the cultural brainstorm activity I shared a few weeks ago.

What if I feel like there is no room to grow? This week, take a few minutes to answer the following questions for yourself:

  • How would I like to grow?
  • What skills do I want to develop?
  • What new roles would I like to explore and why?
  • What are my 1, 5, and 10 year goals? (Personal/Professional)

After you have an idea of some of the things you want to accomplish, schedule a meeting with your supervisor/HR rep/or a mentor, to explore how you can start working toward these goals in your current role. If you find you can’t accomplish what you want in your current role, start the inquiry of other possible ways to start reaching your goals.

Feel like you need help in getting clear on what you want to accomplish or designing a path to follow? Consider exploring executive or personal coaching.

Christopher Littlefield

International Speaker, Trainer, and Founder of AcknowledgmentWorks

Continue to be part of the conversation:
Feel free to stay connected on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter. I regularly share articles and resources. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

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