Leading Teams Lessons from NettlesFor those who hike or are into wild natural foods, you have likely heard of stinging nettles, sometimes referred to as burn hazel. However, for most folks, this seeming weed remains a misunderstood member of the botanical world.

When my wife and I bought our hobby farm four years ago, three of the ten acres were densely covered in stinging nettles. My first tour of the property was a painful trek through knee high stinging nettles because, as their name clearly tells us, they sting. The chemical that is passed from its hairy leaves and stems is actually referred to as venom. Yikes!

That walk and my subsequent nettles adventures have helped me learn 7 important lessons, not only about botany, but more so about being a better team facilitator or leader.

Lesson One: Respect the citizens who are there, no matter what. When I run into those well entrenched and therefore seemingly unfriendly denizens of an organization on a team, I need to respect them. They probably are there because the environment rewarded their way of being, their chemistry. So, even when initial interactions seem to be stinging, respect that they are members of that ecosystem.

How nettles taught me this: My first week there, my brother stopped by to help us get settled in. We thought we should make a trail through these nettles, so armed with weed whackers, away we went. Futile. You see, as I learned, the name “nettles” is because their tough stalks had been used to make nets in ages past. Those nettles strangled that weed whacker spool. I quickly learned not to fight them, but to accept them.

Lesson Two: Don’t confuse attitude with value. Many times I find myself wanting to dismiss the opinions of the team grumps. That’s because most of his or her utterances are downer remarks, sometimes stinging. But if I help all of us keep an open mind, I find that sprinkled in the grumpy statements may frequently be some remarkably good ideas.

How nettles taught me this: When I looked up how to organically get rid of these nettles, I quickly learned that this plant is edible. I now harvest these nettles and, if you want a new delicious dish, make some nettle pasta.

Lesson Three: Be humble and be surprised. Every time I let my ego get in the way, I find myself listening to myself. When I remember to be humble, I am a better listener and learner, and the surprises I learn help me to help the team.

How nettles taught me this: Not only are nettles edible, they are a superfood. These seemingly unfriendly plants are one of the best things you can put in your body. I have been sprinkling dried nettles onto my eggs ever since. Iced nettle tea with mint is a mighty healthy way to cool off.  Here’s another tidbit. This bane of hikers was once a very treasured commodity – it saved poor peasants from starving from Italy to Ireland, and is one of main reasons the Irish survived the potato famine. This weed saved some civilizations…crazy.

Lesson Four: Folks bring more than one talent to the team. Many times I find that I narrowly box team members into thinking that their value is based on the initial reason they were put on the team; that the lady from engineering is there to represent engineering and the guy from finance is there to represent finance. I shouldn’t do that. None of us are one dimensional.

How nettles taught me this: Ok, that crazy nettle plant that I wanted to eliminate. Well you already heard it was used to make nets and that it’s a superfood. Well that’s not the end of it. It is also a compost pile accelerator, an organic super fertilizer, an indicator of soil health, and if you take that plant and slap it on that arthritic knee, even though it stings, it relieves the pain..my goodness.

Lesson Five: Even when you know the value of each person, working with stinging attitudes still take patience and protection. Let’s not sugar coat this. It still takes mental preparation to be ready to work with those grumpy folks. I find that I need to be ready, to mentally put on some protective layers. Then I can let the rewards seem to trickle in, but only with patience, persistence.. and that protective layer.

How nettles taught me this: You’d think that now that I’m harvesting these nettles, they are like my best friend. No, they still sting. Early spring when they are tiny, tender and tasty…they sting the most! Harvesting these guys is hard work, with thick pants (believe me… those nettle hairs will find their way through khaki trousers!), rubber gloves, and long sleeves, all while you slowly snip off just those top, tasty leaves.

Lesson Six: Even obnoxious people have feelings. This is a mistake I make too often, thinking that the grump has no feelings and that maybe we can treat him or her with less than the respect or candor or honesty as the nice members of the group.

How nettles taught me this: Despite being what seems like a wild weed, nettles don’t like mistreatment any more than the petunias in your garden. Treated abusively, say with heavy traffic or taking a brush hog to them, will result in them giving up and going away.

Lesson Seven: Most people excel in their natural environment. Many times I think that if I can get the team into a new venue, or run a session in some whacky new way, that suddenly we’ll be flourishing in productivity. Well, that’s not really always true. Be ready to harvest from the same environment the team is comfortable in.

How nettles taught me this: In case you were thinking of running out and getting some nettles to plant in your yard, let me warn you. Nettles can’t really be cultivated. They like growing in the leaf litter edges of woods. They are best when just left to their own devices in their own environment.

I’m ready to don my gear and go out nettle harvesting. I will continue to be impressed by this plant that not that long ago, I mistook for a weed with a bad attitude. Likewise, tomorrow I’ll be out idea harvesting, and will be impressed by people that I was apt to dismiss because of their stinging attitude.
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