January 2

The Tree of Leadership


I had someone ask me recently, "Why do you have so much passion in doing leadership development work with organizations?" The answer is simple, for me, it is because I know first hand the challenges, joys, frustrations, fears, hopes, failures, and opportunities of being a leader. When I started to dive deep into what it means to be a good leader, I discovered a complex environment that includes awareness of self and others in multiple dimensions. This ignited my passion to help others bring out their best leader.

Leadership Defined

If you asked 10 people to define leadership, you will probably get 10 different answers with some similarities. I define leadership as follows:

  • Everyone is a leader since they need to lead themself well.
  • Leadership is not about authority, it is about influence.
  •  Leadership includes multiple dimensions; communication, vision casting, teamwork, engagement, trust, leading through change, execution, and motivation. There are other elements in leadership but this is a good place to start.


We have a very nice view out of our back windows of a forested area. I enjoy this view. It reminds me of the many years I have spent in the mountains and forests of our country. As I was studying the trees, I had a moment of revelation. A leader is like a tree. Let me explain...


What you don't see on a tree are the roots it has. These are underground. A leader has roots as well. These roots are the primary source of nourishment and growth. The soil will determine the ability for the tree to grow. A leader needs to have strong roots to grow as well. The root system for a leader comes from:

  • The culture, education, experiences, and learning in the leader's life.
  • Embedded in the leader's root system are critical elements: self-awareness, self-management, self-leadership, many forms of intelligence (IQ, EQ, AQ, CQ), personality, habits and patterns, and even the spiritual aspects of the leader.
  • The "tap root", the root that goes the deepest, are the beliefs and values of the leader. These touch everything in the leader's life.

All of these elements are below the surface, where others may not see them. It is critical that the leader understands these things about themselves! If a leader (again, that is really all of us) wants to thrive, then understanding the root system is where healthy and impactful growth can occur. That understanding reveals areas of strength and gap areas.

A tree can only grow as much as its root system allows. The healthier the roots, the greater the growth. This is the same for us as individuals. The difference is we as people can transform our root system and even the "soil" we gain nourishment from. That process starts with enhancing our awareness of the root system we have.

 For a person to become an effective leader, it must start with exploring what is "below the surface".


 The trunk of a tree is the core of the tree that is above the surface and "exposed to the elements". It connects the roots and the branches. It allows nutrients to flow throughout the entire tree. It protects the tree. For us as leaders, our trunk is our core approach to life and work. It is our external presentation of our strength, agility, confidence, competence, and character. It bears the weight of our efforts. It is the place between our unseen self (our roots) and the fruit (productivity) that we bear.


Branches for a tree is the outreach into the environment to sustain growth. The number and health of the branches is directly impacted by the root system. A leader's branches are the outreach the leader has to impact their environment and seek healthy growth in themselves and others. In a tree, branches offer a place for birds and squirrels to occupy, where they can rest, nest, eat, sleep, and live their lives. The branches for a leader are the avenues of connection and direction for their team. A place where they can connect, collaborate, be productive, grow and learn. If you have ever watched a tree for any length of time, you will see that each tree is its own ecosystem. Unhealthy trees do not attract much wildlife. Healthy trees can be centers of life for other creatures. The tree of leadership is just like this. Good leaders who are healthy in themselves attract people who want to follow them and grow with them. This is the symbiotic relationship that can exist when leaders understand who they are and how they can best impact the lives of others.


The leaves of a tree are critical. It is the source of energy. The leaves take in the sun and transform that into energy the tree can use to grow and sustain itself. Leaves for a leader do the same thing. Take in the energy from the surrounding environment and transform it into energy that can be applied to engagement, teamwork, satisfaction, achievement, and growth. The leaves a leader cultivates directly impacts the followership of others. The more attractive the team environment that is cultivated by the leader, the more people will want to live and work in that place.

Thriving - Not Surviving

53% of managers in the U.S are in burnout (Gallup). That is not a place of thriving. Something in that ecosystem for that 53% is not conducive to health and growth. But where is it? What is it?

This is why I am so passionate about what I do when I am providing leadership development. Here is the path to better health:

  • Assess - I can rapidly identify where the "unhealthy" elements are that are hindering the leader through a customized set of validated assessments. Then I can share this insight with the leader so they can explore "below the surface" and increase self-awareness.
  • Equip - This insight then provides clear direction in next steps. What needs to be fixed, accomplished, or avoided. A roadmap for the leader can be created specific to their needs to provide the skill development and transformation desired.
  •  Align - These steps can then be aligned with personal, professional, and organizational goals to ensure optimal outcomes.

What is the Value?

A recent study of leadership development efforts across 2000 leader showed a 415% ROI over a 12 month period. In other words, for every $1 spent on leadership development, the organization enjoyed over $4 in return. Personally, I have seen that ROI number much higher. That is the "bottom line", which I know many leaders want to see. But there are other ways of measuring leadership growth:

  • Reduced turnover
  • Higher functioning teams
  • Increased engagement
  • Greater customer satisfaction
  • Improved cultural
  • Enhanced employer brand (attract top talent)
 All of these are the "fruit" of good leadership. Good leadership is not static but dynamic. For leaders to be effective and sustain long term success, they must continue to grow and improve their leadership skills and impact. This fosters growth throughout organizations.

Simply put, leaders, teams, and organizations are either growing or declining. 

There is no middle ground.

Next time you look at a tree, spend some time and really see all of the parts of that tree. Is it healthy and attractive? Then when you look at a leader, especially yourself, ask these questions:

  • Is your leadership healthy.
  • Are the people who follow you energized?
  • Are you growing your leadership skills and impact?
  • Is the busyness of life and work getting in the way of healthy growth?
  • Where can you enhance your ecosystem?
The growth and success of organizations always comes down to leadership. The more that leaders are healthy and growing, the more the organization can thrive. What is that healthy and growing measure now for you or for your leaders? Where do you want it to be?


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