Forest For The Trees

The Tamarisk tree, First Americans, and Elzéard Bouffier. When seemingly unrelated things have a connection, it means I’m supposed to be paying attention. Four hundred years, seven generations, or a single lifetime. These are all long periods of time—long enough that it is hard to keep in view the changes that will occur.

In church a week ago, we looked at Genesis 21:33 where Abraham planted a Tamarisk tree at Beersheba. If you look up the Tamarisk, you are going to get some conflicting information. You will find the tree grows either 12 feet per season or takes 400 years to mature, depending on whether the information is about the invasive species, or the specific tree Abraham planted. The fact remains that to plant a tree in the desert at Beersheba is a long view behavior.

Recently, I was reminded that First American elders make decisions based on the impact they will have over seven generations. That translates into thinking at least 200 years down the road and being willing to make sacrifices today to create better options for people you may never meet. It is an incredibly community specific viewpoint—one that our current political leaders almost never exhibit.

Elzéard Bouffier is a fictional character in The Man Who Planted Trees, the story of one shepherd’s long and successful single handed effort to re-forest a desolate valley in the foothills of the Alps near Provence throughout the first half of the 20th century. I was introduced to this story many years ago and immediately fell in love with the simple, yet wise, man who quietly and consistently worked a lifetime to create change that impacted tens of thousands of people.

When thinking of the connection these three stories share, I realize I am easily distracted by the tree of today and often fail to imagine and invest in the forest of tomorrow.

Leaders have a responsibility to see the forest in spite of the urgency of the “tree of the moment”. It’s the difference between being an arborist and a forester. Arborists specialize in individual tree care, where foresters care for large areas of woods over long periods of time. While it is sometimes necessary to focus on a specific tree, the primary role of leadership is to see the forest and make decisions that maximize the health and growth of the whole.

What we are talking about is strategic thinking. An article in Harvard Business Review says, “In study after study, strategic thinkers are found to be among the most highly effective leaders.” So, how do we increase our strategic capability and invest in increasing others? Three things stand out to me that are critical to successfully seeing the forest while still caring for the trees: communication, coaching, and confirmation.

We must constantly and effectively communicate three things: goals, internal conditions, and external conditions. We and our teams need a clear and well-articulated mission, values, and vision. We need broad but relevant information about anything that influences our market. We also need cross-functional internal information that is shared freely throughout our organization.

All leaders need coaching, mentoring, education, and just about anything else that can expand our view and enrich our capabilities. We should seek out people and resources with well-documented track records of being focused on strategic objectives and the impact of a leader’s actions.

Finally, we all need confirmation through reinforcement and rewards. We should reward people for thinking, not just reacting. We should acknowledge when people generate multiple solutions and then determine which one provides the best long-term benefit. We should encourage people to ask “why” and “when” questions when considering an action.

The difference between an average leader and an exceptional one is consistent effort to develop and improve a strategic approach. Having a long-term view like Abraham, being community centered like the First Americans, and working with the humble determination of Bouffier will create a culture that sees the forest and cares for the trees, and that is the Bison Way.