One of the enjoyable things I get to do as a CEO is work with a wonderful board of directors. During a recent board retreat, we had a facilitator join us to help work through some difficult decisions. This person happens to be a good friend of mine. During our day, he said something that has stuck with me. He said, “We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant and drink from wells we did not dig.”
That quote and variations of it have been used for many years, but they are all restatements of Deuteronomy 6:10-12. As God was preparing to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he reminded them that they were going to inherit land and cities and everything they needed from people who had gone before them. Trees take a long time to grow, water is hard to find, and wells are difficult to dig. The blessing of having grown trees to provide shade and reliable water to drink would have been very important to the Israelites.
Leaders often imagine that their job is to create something new. A new way, a new plan, a new vision. When a male lion wins control of a pride of lions, he will often kill the cubs that are the offspring of the former king. It is common for human leaders who assume a role to quickly change much of the current operational systems, effectively killing the cubs of the former leader.
As I thought about water and trees, it occurred to me that we do not need to be threatened by what has come before us, nor do those who come before need to be threatened by what is coming next. How silly would it be for someone to plant a tree and then be threatened if someone later sits beneath its shade. Likewise, it would be ridiculous for someone to refuse a drink from a well he didn’t dig, or worse, fill it in and dig another one.
Great leadership should be a continuation of the best of what came before and then improvement as the future is realized. Those who are currently leading and building should expect those who follow to improve on their designs. and those who follow should celebrate and honor what they have inherited, even as they create new paths from the advanced position they have been given.
We have a vision for our community. Much of that vision is a continuation of what was built by the leaders who came before us, but some of it is different. Maybe better, only time will tell, but certainly different. If Garman was alive, I hope he would be honored that we have kept what made the company he built unique and then continued to add to it. I believe he would be disappointed if we didn’t make it better. Our moving on from the advanced position our former leaders gave us doesn’t dishonor them or make what they did less. It honors them by taking full advantage of what they gave us (which they built on the foundations they were given).
We who are leading now must also acknowledge that if we have done well, the leaders who rise to take our place will continue the process and change at least some of what we have done. If the next leader kills all the cubs, then we have chosen an arrogant and dangerous leader. If the next leader sits in the shade of our trees and drinks the water from our wells while building the next better thing, then we have chosen a wise and humble leader who will continue in the Kimray Way.