Recently I was contemplating my garden — actually I was crawling around in it, weeding, deadheading, picking up branches and doing miscellaneous chores.

It was the first time in a month I could do it, because of rain, work, funerals and all the things that happen in life instead of yard work.

It struck me then how much the garden really liked being left alone and rained on. The flowers were blooming in sequence, the peas were just coming, the beans were looking for their poles, and the lettuce already was producing more than I could eat.

These days in July, with all the rain we’ve had, the garden doesn’t need me very much at all.

All the hard work has either already happened or has yet to resume. In the spring there was the clearing away of debris, the spreading of compost and mulch, the planting and transplanting of flowers. There was the repair of the raised beds, the purchase of the vegetable seeds and seedlings, the planting and staking and fencing. (The fencing is critical — those groundhogs are cute sitting beside the highway, but they’re really ugly in the lettuce.)

There was trundling out the rain barrels and repairing their mosquito-proof screen covers. The trick is to put the barrels out a week or two before you plant, so there will actually be water in them when you need it.

In the fall there will be harvesting, clearing up, planting more bulbs, spreading more compost and mulch. And then the dratted leaves, some of which can be left but most of which have to be cleaned up. And then with luck there will be lots of snow and everything can hibernate until the next cycle.

So right now, in fact, is the time to plan: There should be a replacement fence over here. There needs to be another plant over there. This stuff really does not like this microclimate, while this other stuff is spreading like mad. This planting is too tall, this one is too short, this one needs companions to make a good colony.

Gardening is a lot like college administration. As president, one can hire the faculty and staff, see that learning opportunities are in place, make sure that the library, labs, classrooms and technology are as good as we can afford, see that good students are admitted, make sure all the facilities are working properly.

So far, it’s just like gardening. Prepare the ground, add the nutrients, get the seeds and plants. Observe. See what works and what doesn’t. Modify and repeat.

The major difference is that in gardening, the vegetables and flowers don’t have a plan. That’s the gardener’s job. But in a college or any organization, you’re working with people who most certainly do have ideas. In fact, you need folks to have them.

More importantly, you need to share their dreams and you need them to share yours as well, so that together you can make a plan and together you can carry it out.

In gardening, if you don’t do the work, it doesn’t get done. The seeds don’t plant themselves and the plants don’t come home from the garden center and jump into their assigned spots. But college presidents (trust me on this) do very little teaching, student counseling, computer repair, cooking or lawn care. Dedicated faculty and staff do these tasks.

So what is a president for? Dreams, plans and motivation.

Unless there is a dream of excellence, a dream of service to the students and to the community, your college is not going to be continually changing and improving. Recognizing, encouraging and sharing the dream is the key.

Dreams can and do come from anywhere in the organization — from the faculty, the staff and the students, the alumni and the community, as well as from the top. The wise leader knows that her major task is to lead the making of these dreams into a compelling plan, so that the people who actually do the resulting work are motivated to do it beautifully.

Sometimes you get out in front of the parade and sometimes you start one. If things are really working well, everyone thinks they’re responsible. The wise president gives away the credit.

These are the conditions for nurturing an excellent community focused on teaching and learning.

If you get the preliminary gardening work done, you can wait for the rain and admire the flowers.

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Maine at Farmington. She can be reached at [email protected]


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