“People everywhere are growing desperate for renewed sense of community. Deeply held, commonly shared purpose and principles leading to new concepts of self-organisation and governance at multiple scales from the individual to the global have become essential.”Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of VISA and author of One from Many: VISA and the Rise of Chaordic Organization
I had a wonderful opportunity to live in Dublin’s beautiful Phoenix Park for over a decade, where my father served as Parks Superintendent, renovating and restoring Ireland’s Parks. Outside my old bedroom window stands this tree, to this very day. I visited it recently and climbed it with my son. Like me the tree is not as youthful as it once was and is evolving to survive.
As we climbed it, I scanned for dead wood and snapped it off for fear that my son would fall mistaking dead wood for solid wood. I understand the concept dead wood both in nature and in an organisational sense after working in a large complex organisation. The Oxford dictionary defines organisational “dead wood” as “people or things that are no longer useful or productive.” While I disagree that people can ever be no longer useful, I do agree that things can outlive their usefulness, whether that be mindsets, processes, procedures or “the ways things are done around here” (more on that in a previous article Condoms on a Broomstick). For this Thursday Thought however, let’s focus on a phenomenon that I encountered called “Dieback”.
I was fascinated by the growth pattern that I noticed with this particular tree (see the image I snapped above). There was a widening gap between the top and the central body of the tree. When my son asked me why this was, I was intrigued and had to find out. In doing so, I uncovered a nice analogy for what happens in large organisations.
The central stem at the top of the tree trunk is aptly called the leader. You will notice in this tree (above) that the leader is becoming increasingly separated from the central body of the tree. You can guess where the analogy lies. What happens in organisations as they age? When the founder leaves an organisation? When an organisation becomes several generations removed from the origin story? Leaders become increasingly separated from the central body of the organisation.
This analogy gets more compelling when you ask why the tree leader experiences what is known as “dieback”. There are several reasons, ranging from root stress to drought to fungi and parasites. Of course, as the tree ages, it becomes more susceptible to some conditions. When I asked a horticulturist and tree expert about the phenomenon, he said, it happens with age, in a bid to survive, because the tree struggles to pump energy to the leader, it prioritises the trunk, the scaffolding branches and the roots. This is where I lean in on the analogy even further.
When an organisation begins life, the leader is vital to drive vision, mission and instil values and culture. However, as the organisation matures, leadership should naturally “die back”, not to say that it is no longer needed. Rather it should become decentralised across the rest of the organisation. A ten-year career in professional rugby taught me that the best teams are those that are “player led”, the ones where the coach leads, but the players take over. The coaches job evolves from being a visionary to becoming a horticulturist who tends the soil, trims the dead wood when required, maintains the roots and ensures the best possible conditions for a tree to survive and for new leaders to grow. Isn’t that a core principle of leadership after all? To grow new leaders so that they ensure that the organisation thrives into the future, evolving in line with the environment?
Nature instinctively knows what to do to ensure the survival of a species, but we homo sapiens can make things much more complicated than they might otherwise be. Biases, blind spots and clinging to the status quo block our progress. Being aware of this is the first step.
Thanks for Reading
If your team or organisation is interested in a highly-engaging, fun and visual workshop delivered virtually from a professional studio, drop me a line. “The Permanent Reinvention” virtual workshop is now available, based on my forthcoming book, “Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life.” It is a workshop that examines the biases and cognitive traps that prevent us from making our best decisions in business and every other aspect of life.
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