Leaders are Prickly and Fragrant

Cactus in bloom

Have you ever seen a cactus when it’s in bloom? It’s a real treat. I have no idea how many different varieties exist, but it’s “a lot.” While visiting my daughter on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, I ran across the blooming cactus above. Perhaps you know the name, I do not. But I do know that the cactus and its bloom caught my eye in the late afternoon light. Beautiful, if dangerous!

When we moved to Arizona almost 20 years ago, I remember reading a small book on cactuses. Some of the needles could go through the bottom of hiking boots. Mountain bike riders used “goop” in their tires to automatically reseal small puncture holes left by cactus needles. There was even a “jumping cactus.” Needless to say, while bike riding and hiking in the Sonoran Desert of the American Southwest, I always paid attention to the cactuses. I’d learned the hard way that cactuses shouldn’t be messed with when, as a small boy, I sat on one of my mother’s cactuses while living in the Mojave Desert. In shorts no less!

What I’ve observed over the years is that great leaders are like cactuses. They have both needles and flowers. They’re prickly and fragrant. The best leaders I know demonstrate initiative and humility. Assertiveness and tenderness.

Great leaders know when and how to push. They know how to take charge and make things happen. They can assess the situation and respond with love or a kick in the pants. Great leaders know their teams. They understand the importance of deadlines and commitments. They balance the short and long-term. And they know how to be prickly and fragrant.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Think about how well “opposites” or things that are really different and unique from each other go together. Sweet and sour. Ebony and ivory. Salt and pepper. Prickly and fragrant. The rose, like the cactus, demonstrates this same apparent dichotomy. Beautiful, fragrant flowers coupled with sharp thorns. Yet both are representative of effective leaders.

Prickly and fragrant leaders are tough and fair. They push and comfort. They stretch and console. These leaders know that there are times and situations that call for resolve and mettle. At the same time, they know some situations call for compassion and tenderness.

Jesus threw the money-changers out of the temple in Jerusalem and yet also cared for the sick. Great parents know that sometimes negative consequences are needed for undesired behavior while also acknowledging the need to hug and comfort their children. Look at the best athletic coaches. Do they not do the same? With one player, at a given moment of the game, they’re yelling. With the same player, at half-time, they’re walking off the field with their arm around the player’s shoulder offering comfort. Great leaders are prickly and fragrant.

You may not live in area with many blooming cactuses. But regardless, you can be a great leader who is both prickly and fragrant at the same time depending upon the situation you face. The prickly needles don’t represent hurting another. They represent strength, focus, resolve, power, initiative, and tasks. The fragrant flowers don’t represent being a doormat and letting people push you around. They represent humility, tenderness, care, kindness, and relationships. The mental imagery of great leaders being prickly and fragrant like a blooming cactus brings together the leadership principle of using both Head and Heart.

The picture of a blooming cactus I have framed in my office reminds me to be a great leader, one who pushes forward to make things happen while not forgetting to care for people along the way. Prickly and fragrant, does that describe you?

Have a great week and remember to be prickly and fragrant as the situation dictates!

is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.

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