Can Trees Teach Us About Leadership?

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

What can we learn from nature?

If you've been following me for a while, you'll know I love nature and have a deep connection to the natural world, particularly the plant kingdom. My grandmother had fostered a deep curiosity about plants from my childhood and I have kept a garden or indoor plants everywhere that I have lived, but that's another story...

It was a bright and crisp morning the day that Holly and went scouting for a hike around Donner Lake. It was my first time in the Sierra Nevadas, and possibly the first time I've had the opportunity to truly appreciate nature in the United States.

My past trips to the U.S. have mainly consisted of visiting cities for work or to re-connect with people I have met on past trips in far off places. As much as I love these connections, they haven't really afforded me the opportunity get into the 'great outdoors' and experience the beauty that is so often overshadowed by what we read and hear about the U.S. in the media.

This beginner's mind meant I was able to approach our trek with the curiosity of a small child - suffice to say that Holly and I had a wonderful time that day.

Being coaches, we had endless topics to talk about but we were also comfortable walking alone and exploring the trail in our own ways. Holly loves rivers and it was delightful watching her get as close as possible without falling in, while I kept an eagle eye on all the new plants I'd never seen before.

While most of the country had moved into summer, the Tahoe area had been experiencing late snow and many of the blossoms you'd expect to find this time of year were still only starting to peek through. I was hoping for fields of cama lillies that I had read about and fields of pink shooting stars but it seemed we were just a little bit too early. That didn't mean we didn't find magic on our walk.

As we walked through the conifers, I noticed they had been foraged by woodpeckers and the deep holes produced by the birds in turn caused the trees to ooze resin in an attempt to close the wounds as quickly as possible and prevent fungi and other invasive organisms from getting into the heart of the tree and killing it - such is the need to preserve its life so it can continue to provide life-giving oxygen and live symbiotically with other animals. Peter Wohlleben explains this process of protection beautifully in his book 'The Hidden Life of Trees'.

Later that afternoon I was down to perform a ceremony for our group and pine resin is perfect for purification and healing work, so as we walked I carefully harvested excess resin leading Holly to ask 'what the heck are you doing?'. Watch below as I give a brief lesson on how resin turns to amber.

It wasn't long before our attention turned to another feature of the landscape around us and Holly's curiosity invited another question which became a powerful metaphor for what trees can teach us about leadership.

All around us younger trees lay fallen, but not by any mechanical means. I have read about the thinning projects underway to help the forests of the Sagehen Basin. It wasn't the work of beavers either, since the logs lay about not far from their broken stumps, many of which looked like broken matchsticks...

As I surveyed the area and tapped into my intuition and started to speak:

'Look around and notice how these trees have all been broken, not cut by saws or axes. Notice as well how many of these fallen logs are thin and narrow compared to the solid trees around us now that have large thick trunks?'

Holly looked around, taking it all in as I continued.

'What I learned about pine trees is this: younger trees given a lot of light can grow very quickly - almost too quickly with a lot of air within the layers of their wood. This air makes the wood weaker because the wood is more flexible than trees that have layers that are laid down without the air, and thus tighter.

A tree that is shaken by a gale will put on extra wood and become slightly fatter and more windproof, just as any leader who has experienced a set-back will learn from the experience and find a way to bolster their skills. These younger, now broken trees, however, either didn't have the benefit of experience or the stimulus to learn, or the stress of the event was simply too much.

When a tree faces too much strain by either a storm or snow, it may be ill-prepared and under the weight of that strain, collapses and breaks.'

It is a powerful metaphor.

I see this all the time in younger employees and new people managers who feel they have the skills and abilities to effectively lead people. They think that because they have risen quickly and have tackled some level of technical complexity, they 'know it all', or that because they are liked, they will do the job well.

I continued...

'Like any leader who has not had the years of experience, or in tree talk, who has not put down the extra rings in its trunk is at risk of breaking when they aren't adequately prepared for the pressures, sudden or sustained'.

That's what I think has happened here - something unexpected or too stressful caused these trees to crack and break.

That's not to say all leaders are the same or that people aren't resilient.

What trees can teach us is that steady development is an important part of developing resilience and strength so that we are ready, as best as possible, to respond to sudden changes in our environment and remain steady in the face of sustained stress. As leaders of people, it is an important part of our personal and professional development. The more diverse our experience both in relationship to other people and with respect to the development of our skills in different environments, the better prepared we are to respond. Trees have their own ways of responding to stress, but if they don't get exposed to certain events then they are unable to adapt.

Every where I look in nature, I find metaphors for what happens in teams, corporations and relationships and this is why I love trees so much - they are wise beings who have been here far longer than me and have experienced a myriad things I couldn't possible imagine.

What has nature taught you about leadership?

Here's some other photos from our walk:

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