There I was, standing at the base of the widest, tallest, oldest tree I’d ever seen in my life, and all I could muster was a quiet “Wow.” I am one of the millions of people who have had an opportunity to go to the northwestern United States to commune with the giant redwoods, and I am sure I am not the only one whose first impression left them basically mute. These creations were stunning in so many ways. The diversity of their bark was unexpected, some with long vertical cuts, others more striated with more intricate patterns. The average age of the trees was 800 years old with the oldest estimated to be 2,500 years old. Of course, as my mind always does, I began to think about these wise old trees and leadership. What had they witnessed on journeys so long and challenging? What could I take away from this experience that I could share in terms what we could learn from these ancient, silent griots?
I grabbed a park ranger and he gave me a lesson as we walked through the dew-drenched, fern cluttered forest. He shared that the roots of the trees are only 10-12 feet deep. I thought I misunderstood him. Anything that tall had to have 20+ foot roots that kept them anchored for the hundreds of years they survived. “No,” he said. “They have relatively shallow roots because they combine them with their fellow trees to create an intricate system that allows for sufficient watering and nutrients.” Fascinated I kept the questions coming. “They all have a bulbous growth on them that must serve some purpose?” “Yes,” he replied. “When the life of the tree is threatened, that bulb releases spores and seedlings that allow for the continuation of life.”
Some of the trees stood like silent centurions while others seemed to hug one another like friends. This too had meaning. The smaller trees often grew right next to one another, their bases touching, supporting and giving each other life. Even the trees bark had special properties. As we observed some trees burned on the inside but not on the out we were confused. The park ranger explained that it is tough to burn redwood bark, even with a direct lighting strike. If, however, lightning or fire breached the bark, these trees could simmer inside for a very long time before breaking through the outer bark hence the odd burn patterns we observed.
Even after life, these trees continue to serve. Those that are hollowed provide shelter. One tree we walked into could have covered 20 people so you can imagine how many small animals and shaded plants had come and gone. Their fallen limbs fertilize the earth around them and provide homes for insects. Some of the tree trunks sprouted thick growths of ferns 70 feet high making us wonder how they received enough water to keep them alive but grow they did.
My biggest problem wasn’t finding analogies for leadership among these historic giants, it was limiting the lessons to a manageable size. Let’s start with the basics. I sought out the quiet and majesty of these northern California and Oregon beauties to give my overloaded mind a break. Wrapping up my doctorate and launching a new career brought both opportunity and anxiety. Understanding how people lead, how they interact with organizations and communities, and how to help others adapt to the styles of leaders of color has long been a passion. This is what I wanted to do, what I’d spent years educating myself for, but would I be successful? What would others think of my transition? Even with over 25 years in management, coaching, creating, and community building, what was it going to take to share this experience and support others in a meaningful way? As much as I wanted to gallop forward, my brain shouted, “Whoa, hold up!” With the encouragement of good friends, I listened and relinquished control. As cliché as this sounds, as soon as the car entered the forest my shoulders dropped, my anxiety dried up and blew away like dust, and I could not stop smiling. With the Pacific Ocean to the west, I was wedged between two of the most magnificent sites in creation. I was a tiny speck among them and to say I gained perspective is an understatement.
As I tightened my new hiking boots, I began to explore further, crawling into the belly of hollow trees, walking through the mist of clouds and fern strewed paths, splashing through creeks, scrambling over toppled trees, making myself listen to the forest. The redwoods shared that leadership is not a solo venture. Without intertwined roots, you have no chance of reaching the heights in which you seek. When their very existence is threatened, they don’t pull in and lord over the rest with the expectation that they should be honored for what they have already done. No, they reach out and give away everything they have left so life can continue. Their utter unselfishness ensures the life of the species, no plaques, or honors necessary. The smaller ones embrace one another, rising together, sharing space, and food, and water. When the rains and the winds and the fires come to threaten, they are unflinching in their support. One will not fall without the other. They even nourish those of other species. If our arms do not reach out to hold and hug and support others through tough times, we tumble, and if we are perceived as selfish, there won’t be many hands to catch us on the way down.
At one point, we climbed almost 1,700 feet up the side of a mountain and looked down onto the tops of these trees. I’d convinced myself that I could never climb this high but somehow, in this place, filled with wildlife I had never seen before, trees whose pictures had not done them justice, I climbed, and climbed and climbed. I felt safe. I could view the diverse offering of these mighty beings, none no more magnificent or wise than the other. They all offered what they had and together they were stunning. My vision was clear, my body didn’t complain, my soul was at rest and my heart open. I was rewarded for my efforts. An apt pupil, they led me as only great and generous leaders can. I quietly listened and absorbed, and I was grateful.