Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Leadership, I Learned… From Trees



Adversity builds integrity

It may sound silly to say, but leadership is hard.

No, really. It is HARD to lead people. Mostly, because every person is different, and every person has a different perspective on life and work and each situation than you do – and most people (whether they’ll admit it or not) think their way is the way.  

I’ll admit, I may, at times be guilty of advocating for my own way, even when someone else’s way is better (i.e. making it tougher for someone else to lead me).

I have also been guilty of getting sucked into the meme-laden world of social media, which condenses leadership down to a few, creatively-styled words on a 1080×1080 background that seek to be uplifting and profound, more than true.

It is tough to get too much truth into a handful of words on an Instagram post. And the truth of that is that following memes makes leadership that much harder. How many likes will you get with something like this:





Right? (For those more patient than I am, “tl:dr” stands for “too long: didn’t read”.)

Admit it, you saw all the words and skipped right over the graphic.

I don’t want to seem overly critical of inspirational quotes, really. I like to be inspired as much as the next person. However, the amount of inspiring leadership quotes on social media far outweighs the amount of harsh reality that leadership requires, it can start to bring a person down. It’s kind of like when your Facebook feed is full of your friends and their kids having fun family times at the lake/beach/amusement park/etc. When it seems you’ve spent most of the day yelling at them to quit fighting and clean up their toys. Comparing their best with your reality (probably more like your worst) makes it seem like your life sucks. It’s the same when you compare your colleagues’ inspirational memes on LinkedIn to your reality of dealing with employees and customers who have their own ideas of what leadership and inspiration look like – and they all differ from your ideas.

About this time, you’re looking back at the title and wondering, What does any of this have to do with trees?

Stick with me. I’m getting there.

My parents built their dream home in 1988. To commemorate this achievement, my grandfather gave them a blue spruce sapling to plant in the back yard so that as it grew, they could look back and remember the day they realized their dream of moving into that house. And, as planned, that tree became a regular fixture in the landscape of the house – birds would nest in it from year to year, we would look for the first flakes of winter snow in its boughs, and after a few years, Mom got a large, red velvet bow to decorate its top at Christmas time. The problem was that even eight or nine years later, we didn’t need a ladder to put the bow on the top. The little spruce was growing, but it was still a little spruce when it should have been much taller.

That is, until the Spring of 1998.

I remember the day vividly. I was in Indianapolis for the final day of the class I needed to complete so that I could qualify to take the exam to qualify for my life and health insurance license. As class ended, I called to let my parents know I was on my way home, and my dad told me I may need to stay in Indy, at least until the storm passed.

Storm? What storm? There was no sign of rain in Indy – just 70 miles to the East.

Being an invincible, self-confident 22 year-old, I pointed the truck West, and headed for home. All was well. The sun was shining. I even had the windows rolled down, it was a great Spring day. However, when I turned off the highway about five miles from home, I noticed a change. The temperature dropped probably 20 degrees. It looked like a weed eater and an ice machine got into a fight – and both had lost. The roads were covered with bits of leaves, and in some places large branches, and everywhere there were piles of ice several inches deep. Mile after mile of devastated vegetation, not to mention the houses and cars that suffered extreme damage.

When I finally made it home, my parents and my girlfriend (now wife) were still visibly shaken. The pea-sized hail that had accumulated on the deck was about six inches deep. All of the plants and trees were damaged – worst of all was the little blue spruce. Mom was heartbroken, and we were all sure the poor little tree was a gonner. It had lost so many branches and needles it looked naked. There was no hope. No one had the heart to dig it up and move it out of the yard. We would just leave it, at least for a while, until it got too brown and unsightly, then we would probably just burn it where it stood.

But a strange thing happened.

As the warmth of Spring gave way to the heat and humidity of Summer, that little tree stayed green. New branches and groups of needles came in to replace the ones that were lost to the hail, and to our surprise, there were more needles and branches Right before our eyes, the tree began to grow – and grow like it had never grown before. By the end of summer, it had added more than a foot to its height. By the next Christmas, we had to put bows around the tree because we could not reach the top – it was too tall to reach from the ground, and too big around to reach safely with a ladder. Our little tree had hit a major growth spurt. This growth continued year after year.

That, then leads us to two questions: The first is: What happened to cause the growth? The second, and most important, is: What the heck does this have to do with leadership?

Would you believe the answer to the first question is the moral to the leadership story?

It turns out that our little tree had it good, too good. The little blue spruce was planted in a prominent spot in the yard, away from other trees where it got good sunlight. The soil was very fertile, and we frequently fertilized around the roots to keep it healthy. Our little spruce wanted for nothing, and did not have to struggle to get anything.

Therefore, the tree got lazy. It didn’t have to work for anything, so it assumed that’s just the way the world was – work, which in its case was working to grow bigger, was unnecessary. The hail storm served as a wake up call to the realities of life. Suddenly, the wide open space that provided sunshine all day long provided no protection from the hail that fell to shred the little tree’s boughs. The fertile soil and lack of competition for water left no need for the little tree to grow a strong root system that would have provided stability when the storm winds blew and nearly uprooted it.

The hail storm was a wake up call for the tree to the harsh realities of life, and it was just the motivation the little tree needed to grow itself into the big tree it finally became.

The moral to our leadership story is this: In order to get to the point of meme-worthy inspiration, you have got to make it through the hailstorms of leadership, when things are tough, and you’re not sure you’re going to make it. Have the tough conversations. Make plans and stick to them – or better yet – make plans and change mid-course when you realize your assumptions were wrong from the beginning. Make changes and let your people see you were wrong. Let your pride take the beating it needs so that your confidence can grow you into the leader you can become.

tl:dr version:




When you feel like you’re taking a beating, use it as an opportunity for growth. (Unless you’re getting a physical beating, then get the heck outta there!)

Where are you growing?

For the first 34 years of my life, I lived in Indiana, a state known for its plentiful crops and hardwood forests. For as far back as I can remember, everything was green. My earliest years were spent growing up in the city, but even there, we had grass to mow in the spring and summer and leaves – lots of leaves – to rake in autumn. In our city lot we had a huge maple tree in the front and a smaller, but still big mulberry tree in the back yard. These trees were easily 40-50 feet tall. Our city and county parks were places full of tall red oaks, sugar maples and sycamores with large, full canopies. In the last house Nicole and I lived in before we moved to Texas, we had two little, ornamental maples in the front whose canopies were full, but only reached about 30 feet or so in height. In the back yard, though, we had a huge sugar maple and the rear property line was defined by a row of towering gum trees.

It seemed that everywhere I looked were large, tall trees of all kinds. And why not? It rained every spring – April showers do bring May flowers after all. As a kid, I remember wondering at times if it would ever quit raining. Our summers, though hot and humid also saw their fair share of rain showers. Not only that, but winter snows were very common as well – I loved those as a kid, but couldn’t take the days upon weeks of gray skies as an adult, which was one reason for our eventual move to a sunnier place.

Fast forward to early 2010. Nicole and I had decided it was time for a change and I got the opportunity to interview for a job 1,000 miles away in Austin, TX. We were both excited for the move, though I was the only one of us who had ever been to Texas – and that was for a three-day conference the year before in Austin. To be honest, I saw much more of the Austin Hilton than I did of anything else in Texas, but that didn’t stop us from pursuing a job opportunity in the Lone Star State.

I flew into Austin early on the day before the interview so that I could get the lay of the land.  I wanted to be sure I knew how to get from the hotel to the office, and I also wanted to look around at the place that we might (and eventually did) call home. After driving to the office, I decided to take in more of the new scenery and eventually found my way to Austin’s Zilker Park. I hadn’t planned for a trip to the park, so I didn’t have anything to wear other than suits and dress shoes, so I didn’t explore on foot. Rather I drove through the park, taking in the sights and sounds of the Capital of Texas. After a while, I called Nicole to report on what Austin had to offer.

After our initial greetings, our conversation went something like this:

Nicole: “What is your first impression of Austin?”  

Clay: “The trees sure are short.”

Nicole: “That’s your impression? The trees are short? What about the rest of the city?”

Clay: “Um. It pretty much looks like a city. Not much different than Indianapolis or Ft. Wayne or Evansville. But the most noticeable difference is in the trees; I’m here at this big park and it’s full of these little bitty trees.

You can imagine how puzzled Nicole was by this part of the conversation. What can I say, we’d been married nearly 10 years at that point, and she still didn’t expect that I’d focus on the trees in Austin as the differentiating factor between there and home. However, when we moved there a few months later, she discovered what I was talking about – and she agreed that the trees were different than we had back in Indiana, they were much shorter.

As we got settled into our new surroundings, we began attending a church just down the road from my office, and we noticed that many of the [little] trees there had these silver number plates nailed to them. Another funny thing was that many of these trees were in weird spots. It was like sidewalks, landscaping and even the parking lots had been planned around the trees, which was strange, because in Indiana, we would have just cut down the trees as opposed to going around them. So, we asked someone at the church about the number plates, and we found out that these particular trees were registered as historic (thus the numbering) – they were old trees, some over 100 years old, and could not be cut down without getting special permission from some governing body.

What? How could a tree – and oak tree even – that wasn’t 20 feet tall be 100 years old? Why were these so special?

We discovered that the reason these, and the other trees we found in the area, were so short was that, as someone put it, “They do their growing below ground.”

The climate in which these trees grow is so adverse that they have to spend considerable time, energy, and effort on their root systems. The summers last 10 months or so (seriously, I can only remember not wearing shorts in late January and February), and temperatures frequently reach 100+ degrees for extended periods of time and rainfall can be scarce, as we found about a year after moving to Texas where we experienced a drought that lasted more than four years. In addition, there seems to be a constant wind that blows throughout that area. This means that to survive long-term, the trees need to grow a root system that can find water deep beneath the surface of the earth, and these roots need to be strong enough to hold the tree upright through the wind, especially in the dry summer heat.  

The roots – the part of the tree beneath the surface that no one sees – is the part of the tree that is key to survival. Don’t get me wrong, the canopy and trunk of the tree are also important. The trunk holds up the canopy so the leaves can do the whole photosynthesis thing, but to minimize water usage, the canopy has to be kept in proportion to what the roots can support, otherwise the tree would not survive in the arid climate. To be honest, these trees are not much to look at, but they are survivors!

So, what does this have to do with leadership?

How many of us spend our time and effort building our canopies instead of our root systems?

Let’s look at what “canopy building” looks like:

  • Going to the best school
  • Having the “right” degree
  • Plastering the wall of your cubicle / office with numerous certificates
  • Having endless professional designations after your name
  • Joining the right civic groups
  • Kissing up to the boss

The list goes on. However, these things can be your downfall if you don’t spend enough time working on the root systems to support them.

Think about this: What happens when a connection you made during your MBA from top-ranked program lands you a job managing a group of professionals who are far more experienced in the technical aspects of the job than you are? What happens if you haven’t spent any time managing people, or practicing leadership skills, or having difficult performance conversations?

You will wither away like a big, beautiful maple tree in a drought. It won’t take long before your team – and your boss – will see that you’re all canopy and no roots.

The problem is that building roots is tough, not to mention dirty. On top of that, just like the root system of a tree, no one sees the work that goes into building your character and skills as a leader. It takes trial, error and vulnerability to grow as a leader. This growth is the most important part of building yourself as a leader; however, there are no certificates to put on the wall, and no one is likely to give you kudos when you tell them they are not living up to your expectations, or holding up their end of the employment agreement.

Believe it or not, this work is more important than the other, more noticeable work. The best leader I’ve ever known did not have an advanced degree from a prestigious university. He didn’t have a degree at all, in fact. However, Jim was highly respected by his peers, superiors and those who reported to him. He didn’t have a wall full of degrees and certificates. No, what he did have was integrity.

Think about the leaders you know – the actual leaders and the wannabes. What do the real leaders have in common? My guess is integrity, wisdom & grit. What do the wannabes all have in common? My guess is the lack of all the above.

None of this is to say that real leaders can’t have prestigious degrees or walls full of certificates. It doesn’t matter where – or even if – you went to school, it matters how much time you’ve spent developing yourself in these less-visible areas.

Tweet that.

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