For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.” – Martin Luther
A recent study estimated that there are more than 3 trillion trees on the planet, at least 420 trees per person. They’re remarkable plants. Here are three things you can learn from trees that will help you think about organizational leadership:
1. The structure of a tree reflects both the past and the present.
Did you know that less than 5% of the mass of a tree is alive? The leaves, flowers, the thin layers of xylem and phloem under the protective bark, and water/mineral absorption layers in the roots are alive. Everything else is residual history of previously living tissue. The past shapes and supports the living. Damages sustained in storms and by insects will slowly be repaired by living tissue.
Long-lived companies and organizations are like trees. The past supports the present. It’s difficult to suddenly change the “culture” created by previous lives.
2. Trees are linchpin characters in the ecosystem
Trees anchor the soil. They influence the microclimate of water vapor moving into the atmosphere. They blunt the effect of wind on everything at ground level. Trees are hosts for many other species from funguses to insects to birds and squirrels. The leaf canopy of a tree absorbs an incredible amount of UV radiation (the cooling power of shade). Shed leaves and needles change the soil composition as they decay.
Ecologists know that the fastest way to transform a biosphere is through trees. King Solomon is said to have transformed the desert by planting trees. Workers ringed rocks around the base of the tree to condense moisture from the air when the desert cooled at night, dripping into the rocky soil to sustain the tree. Over the years the trees grew and changed the desert into forest and fields that could be cultivated. We’ve also observed the opposite – clear-cutting forests leads to massive ecological change.
3. Trees are rigidly flexible
Trees don’t pack up and move to new locations in good time or bad. They are where they are, and no matter the weather they stand firm. Their roots cling powerfully to the earth. Given a choice to ram my car into a tree or a telephone pole of the same diameter I would opt for the telephone pole. Rare is the wind strong enough to push a tree hard enough to pull it out of the earth.
Yet trees are flexible. Their leaves adjust position to better capture sunlight. Limbs and branches can sway and bend without breaking. Trees are resilient benders; they quickly recover their original position.