Why Does a Tree Grow?


“The power to learn is present in everyone’s soul, and the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body.” – Plato

“To know that light falls and fills, often without our knowing, as an opaque vase fills to the brim from quick pouring, fills and trembles at the edge yet does not flow over, still holding and feeding the stem of the contained flower.” – Will Rogers

“If you want to be truly successful, invest in yourself to get the knowledge you need to find your unique factor. When you find it and focus on it and persevere your success will blossom.” – Sidney Madwed

I spend a good portion of the last two weekends pruning my trees.  With the spring growth behind us, and the scorching summer heat beating down, I felt it was time to give my trees a fighting chance.  It was time to trim off the unwanted growth that often saps trees nourishment and shape their future growth.

As I went about this effort (dripping with sweat from the near century-high temperatures down here in Texas), I was struck by the different shapes and sizes of these trees.  Some were tall, stretching high in to the sky.  Some were short, but with beautiful canopies that spanned the yard.  Some were intertwined with others, twisting as if struggling to best the others.   And still others grew lopsided, appearing as if half the tree had been severed in some distant battle.

And so I was struck by a strange thought – What makes a tree grow the way it does?  Why does it reach for the sky in such graceful yet varied ways?  Why do its limbs stretch upward, twisting, turning, and bending in so many different directions?  And why are some trees more successful than others?  Of course, genetics play an important role in how different types of trees grow, but even the same species tree can be found in dramatically different shapes.

Clearly, a tree requires nutrients to survive.  And water is an absolute requirement for life.  But while water and nutrients are essential, they don’t define how it grows.  That is something entirely different.  Its growth is often largely influenced by its access (or in some cases lack thereof) to light.  Trees grow in direct proportion to the light they receive.  A tree with plenty of light will develop a large, broad canopy.  One starved of light in the shadows of other trees will grow tall and slender.  And still others will stretch sideways and grow into lopsided shapes as they steal what little light they can find.

No, this isn’t an article on horticulture; it’s a leadership blog.  And yes, there is a purpose for the tree story.  You see, a tree’s growth is a wonderful analogy to one’s growth as a leader.   Its light source is the sun. It struggles to find this light and shapes its very being by its ability to access it.  It will twist, turn, lean and bend in dramatic ways just to have that light.  Its limb and branches stretch high in to the air as if to say “I want more!”  Trees that are limited in light are often smaller, or less developed, or grow in strange and sometimes unstable shapes.

And thus is leadership.  A leader’s light source is information and knowledge.  The most successful leaders thirst for that knowledge.  They strive to get more.  They read.  They research.  They seek out information – early in the morning, late in the evening, on weekends, on plane rides.  They shower themselves with insights and differing perspectives.  They seek out new ideas. They learn from others – from their successes and failures.  But most of all, they never stop seeking knowledge.

I’ve often heard it said by many a great leader that knowledge is power.  That the most important investment you can make in yourself is to learn.  And I’ve heard it said the most successful leaders are those who find the time to read – books, news, articles, opinions, blogs – anything that can help improve their knowledge of the world around them.

If you don’t already do so, find the time to read at least one book a week – two if you can stand it. Subscribe to a few websites that offer news, insights, market intelligence, or other perspectives.  Find a few bloggers whose posts inspire you.

Whatever the source, never stop learning.  Never stop investing in your own knowledge.  For when you do, you will become that majestic oak, well rounded, well balanced, and perfectly formed.

And I’ll leave you with two great quotes to drive this thought home – one from Harry S. Truman, and one from Dr. Seuss….

“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”  [Harry S. Truman]

“The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”  [Dr. Seuss, from the book “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!”]


One thought on “Why Does a Tree Grow?

  1. Kip, this is an excellent post. On the bottom side of the tree, let us not forget about the roots. “California Valley Oak’s taproot can reach 60 feet deep, to search for groundwater. Some of its roots extend out more than twice the drip line. The oak tree’s extensive root system anchors it against storm conditions and allows it to absorb water and nutrients from the soil. Its roots are the source from which the visible tree’s greatness springs.”

    Great leaders grow deep roots. An article written by: Scott Campbell in 2009 discusses the six roots great leaders all have:

    1. Integrity: “No integrity = no trust. No trust = no followers”
    2. Vision: In the words of Jack Welch, GE’s noted CEO, “The leader’s unending responsibility must be to remove every detour, every barrier to ensure that vision is first clear, and then real.”
    3. Concern: “People will follow leaders whom they sense genuinely care for their wellbeing – even to the ends of the earth”
    4. Creativity: Current thinking by creativity researchers contends that the question is no longer, “Are you creative?” but rather, “How are you creative?”
    5. Results-Orientation: “So effective leaders have a results-orientation. But the best leaders understand that in most situations the best way to get results is through people.”
    6. Courage: “Confronting poor performance, deciding who to lay off, announcing unpopular decisions, implementing change that will cause significant distress for people, staying optimistic in the face of problems, and advocating on behalf of your followers to those above you in the chain-of-command are a few of the myriad ways in which great leaders demonstrate courage.”


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