Growing a Taproot to Your Leadership

By Tom Davidson

The longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) is a unique species of the southern yellow pine family, and it provides an important metaphor about developing leaders.

Once a predominant forest type in the southeast forests of the United States, the longleaf was prized for its quantity and quality of resin, turpentine and lumber. Antithetically, the species flourished when wildfires were the norm, but because of highly successful fire prevention programs this century and because the species was often replaced with faster-growing loblolly pines, longleaf pine is now having to be meticulously restored.

A similar predicament
We are in a similar predicament with our next generation of leaders, who have to be carefully restored in quality and quantity. Baby boomers are now exiting the workforce at a record rate, taking with them both technical skills that were learned over decades and management competencies that similarly cannot be passed down as easily as a key to the office door.

Growing and transferring these skills and competencies to the next generation should have started a decade ago, but because of a tough economy, downsized workforces, and even higher-priorities at the time, there has been relatively little investment in transferring vital skills and abilities.

Even rocket scientists are not immune
Even the next NASA mission to send astronauts to Mars will be severely hampered by the fact that the lessons learned during the Gemini and Apollo space programs were not captured, documented and transferred. Insight, skill and documentation simply walked out the door with the army of specialists and contractors after they “put a man on the moon and brought him safely back to the Earth.” As a result, critical lessons learned will have to be learned all over again, reengineered or invented anew.

The same is true for your next crop of new leaders.

As you consider your own development and that of other everyday leaders, know that you still need to grow the taproot of leadership, even while ascending faster than you would have in the past. Just as the taproot of the longleaf pine takes years to develop before the stem ascends above the ground, we all need to start building our skills as early as possible. Like the taproot, these skills give us stability in the winds of leadership and make it possible to grow farther and faster.

How to accelerate growth
Your three best choices for developing the taproot of leadership and accelerating above-ground growth include the following:

  1. Contemporary leadership training that involves pre-work and goals; interactive, generationally savvy and customized training; and follow-up back-on-the-job support to apply the skills being developed.
  2. Individual executive coaching and one-on-one mentoring that accelerates and customizes the learning process. These are particularly necessary for the next generation of young leaders, especially where the need for their skills is urgent.
  3. Sending young leaders to assessment (or development) centers that accurately judge their current skill sets without political bias or subjective influences from the workplace. This focuses their development on the most needed areas for growth rather than having to expose them to too much too soon.

As foresters know, you can’t make a tree grow faster, but you can shape its environment so that it can grow faster on its own. Just as with longleaf pine restoration, nurturing the next generation of leaders is a long-term process that needs to start yesterday.

It’s the nature of what has transpired with organizations and generations, and it’s the nature of leadership.

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