Leadership Library Review: “Lessons from Plants” by Beronda Montgomery (Harvard, 2022)

November 2022

We would do well in our interactions with others to consider how we take care of plants.  For the most part, we begin from the expectation that the plant has the ability to grow and thrive.  When the plant is not doing well, we ask questions about the health of the environment (does the plant have enough or too much light?) or about our own abilities as a care-taker (what am I doing wrong?).  We do not immediately believe the plant has deficits.

– Lessons from Plants (p. 146)

Vice president for academic affairs and dean of Grinnell College, Dr. Montgomery arrived at Grinnell this year after serving as a professor in the departments of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University.  (I heard about her from my wise friend Diane Kelly, Vice Provost of Faculty Affairs at the University of Tennessee.)  Montgomery is a plant physiologist whose experimental research focused on ecophysiology, or the interplay between plants and their environments.  In this quietly provocative volume, she writes with deep insight and savvy about the sophistication of plants’ sensing and decision-making capabilities and what we can learn from them about cultivating healthy human communities.  The book is, ultimately, an impassioned call for leaders to develop greater cross-cultural awareness so that they can rigorously engage in “groundskeeping” (as opposed to “gatekeeping”).  For Montgomery, groundskeeping entails perception, creativity, resilience, collaboration, sensing, adaptation, pioneering and – most importantly – attending to both the individual and the larger environment.

Sensing, discernment and risk

Lessons from Plants is a poetic rumination on how the sentience, behavior and thriving of plants illuminates our own human assumptions about agency, transformation and care-taking.  In the chapter on “A Changing Environment,” Montgomery uses the science of plant sensitivity (e.g. detecting and responding to light, or soil nutrients, etc.) to offer a formula for self-reflection.  In her writings, Montgomery refers to this important leadership capacity to take stock of and reflect upon internal and external resources as “process and proceed.”  In “Friend or Foe,” she describes how plants and trees create network-based relationships based on various amazing forms of communication, offering a poignant commentary about how broadly or narrowly humans tend toward inclusion and exclusion. 

“Risk to Win” focuses on – what is, in my view – the most astonishing discernment process that plants engage in, which is how they “weigh risks and respond to scarcity in remarkable ways, all while staying put” (p. 56).  Plants use elements called volatile organic compounds to gather data on which to make gambles.  Like animals – including human leaders (think: pandemic!) – plants are more likely to take particular types of risks when resources are uncertain.  It was strangely touching to learn from Montgomery that when faced with “survival” questions, plants who determine that “the environment is unsuitable for continued existence” will direct their energy toward producing seeds in hopes of better conditions for future successors (pp. 59-60).  This resonated with my developmental leadership coaching approach.  Sometimes my clients outgrow their organizational conditions to the extent that they face an existential-level identity crisis (I can relate: three times in my career, a professional identity has died so a new one could take root).  In these cases, the smartest, most generous thing one can do is scatter good “seeds” and let go of life in that job.

Ecosystem transformation

Perhaps my favorite chapter of chapter in the book is “Transformation.”  Here, Montgomery describes how plants create and respond to various degrees of disruption (e.g., some plants serve as “pioneers” in re-vegetating an area made barren by conditions such as fire, others actively display collaborative “swarming” behavior) for long-term community health.  Humans have the ability to intentionally initiate transformational change, but too often resist it.  On page 94 Montgomery laments, “[p]eople often purport to desire significant changes to ecosystem structures in the pursuit of equity but ignore the need for real ‘disturbance’ to break away from the status quo community composition.”  She declares, quite rightly, that “intervention and intentional disruption may be critical for supporting environments primed for the succession needed to support cultural change.”

In “Planning for Success,” Montgomery uses plant analogies to highlight the failures of a deficit-based system that assumes individual weakness rather than inquiring about the environment with which a person is interacting – and whether the surrounding context actually supports successful outcomes.  Instead, she calls for leadership, mentoring and advocacy grounded in a different set of assumptions – e.g., prioritizing community flourishing over individual achievement – and which utilize growth-based approaches (p. 131).  This kind of leadership is expressed through seeing both the individual as well as recognizing their larger social context, which in turn requires “being able to comprehend that many of the challenges that individuals from minoritized backgrounds face stem from long-standing histories of systemic inequities” (p. 130).

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

While enjoying Montgomery’s book, I came across her enlightening 2020 mSphere article, Lessons from Microbes: What Can We Learn about Equity from Unculturable Bacteria. “We can learn many lessons about equity and stewardship-based engagement,” she writes in the abstract, “from the ways that microbiologists seek to understand how to cultivate unculturable bacteria, including the importance of understanding an organism’s language and community, replicating aspects of the environment of origin, an organism’s occasional need to transform aspects of its environment to persist, and the critical needs to provide a range of culture conditions to support diverse organisms.”  The piece makes a persuasive argument about what-not-to-do, the centerpiece of which is a stark chart showing “selected factors that we accept about unculturable bacteria that we reject about minoritized and marginalized colleagues.”

Are you interested in more about plants and the science of what we can learn from them?  Considering that – in the U.S. – we honored Indigenous People’s Day in October and we celebrate Thanksgiving (with all of the ironies of its origin story) later this month, I strongly recommend Krista Tippett’s On Being interview called “The Intelligence of Plants” with botanist and recent MacArthur “genius grant” winner Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Milkweed, 2015).  Just FYI, on Krista Tippett’s urging in “The Pause” newsletter, I am currently working my way through James Bridle’s revelatory Ways of Being – Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), which is wildly up-ending my notions about organic and artificial intelligence.

“To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” – William Wordsworth.  Photo: A purple aster blossom seems to reach for this clouded sulphur butterfly on my Montpelier, Vermont hillside in late September.
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