The NATURE of Leadership Development (blog 2 of 3)

By Tom Davidson

The growth patterns of trees and forests provide useful analogies about the growth of leaders. I kid you not! Read more below!

The growth patterns of trees and forests provide useful analogies about the growth of leaders. This blog series uses three components of tree biology to convey several memorable principles that everyday leaders can apply, not only for themselves but for the people they supervise. Specifically, you should be thinking about your roots, rings and branches in order to develop well-rounded leadership capabilities, including the following: 

Roots – A mature leader has deep roots in her values, strengths, experiences and priorities.
Rings – A successful leader never stops adding knowledge, skills and abilities.
Branches – A wise leader branches out their experience and perspectives. 

In the first blog in this series, we talked about the roots of leadership and the need to grow a strong foundation before climbing any corporate ladder too fast. In this one, we’ll discuss growth rings. 

Growth rings of leadership 
Most trees that grow in temperate climates (those that involve a change of seasons) grow in layers. If you’ve ever seen the cross-section of a tree or looked closely at the end of a piece of lumber, then you’re familiar with this concept. 

Technically, what causes a growth ring is the division of vertical cells just beneath the bark and the visible difference in their growth rate as the seasons change. Generally speaking, the cells that grow early in the growing season are called early (or spring) wood, and those that are added later in each season are called late (or summer) wood. The largest and strongest trees in a forest consistently add the most growth each year, while the slower-growing trees are usually overshadowed by their peers and die out over time. 

Spring wood cells have thin walls, appear relatively light in color, and usually contribute to the widest part of the annual growth ring. Whereas summer wood cells have thick walls that appear darker in color, and usually contribute to the narrowest part of the growth ring. The visible effect of this biology is a concentric pattern of growth rings that can be counted and studied to inform historians and foresters about the past and current growth of the tree, year over year. 

In a similar way, successful leaders should be developed in layers, year upon year, for a lifetime. If they don’t maximize their growth each year, they too run the risk of being overshadowed by their peers. In the natural resource business, this is considered a waste of wood; in the human resource business it’s a waste of talent. 

Maximize your growth rings 
Thinking of a tree’s growth – and your growth – in this way, provides questions, insights and principles for everyday leaders like you and me. For example: 

1. What layers should come first, second, third and so forth in the development of leaders?

⁃     Look at your organization’s competency model for successful leadership behaviors in your organization. “Competency models” are codified bundles of behaviors needed at the frontline supervisors, middle manager of other mangers, and executive levels. If you don’t have one, email me at, and I’ll send you a standard set of such competencies. Also, read The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company by Ram Charan and others to better understand the very different skills needed at various levels in every organization. 

2. What can you do to position your tree (i.e., yourself) to get the most out of the available nutrients and sunlight?

⁃     Positioning yourself for fast development is an active process, not one that should rely on luck or where you just happen to be planted. Seek out managers with a track record of developing talent in their area of responsibility. Look at the patterns of leaders in your organization, and try to spot the ones who have had the most promotions out of their areas. If there are none, then you might be in the “wrong forest” to suit your potential for growth, and you might need to think about being transplanted elsewhere. If you can spot these leaders and managers, you should think about working for them instead of stagnating where you are. 

3. What are you doing to maximize each year’s “growth ring” in yourself and others?

⁃     While trees have no choice about their growth patterns because they are subject to location, weather, wildfire, insect attack and disease, you have a choice. Those emerging leaders who choose to, can accept whatever nutrients and sunlight that comes their way and make the most of that, but those who are more proactive, like you, take control of their development. By this I mean that they seek out learning opportunities in the form of training, on-the-job experience, and stretch assignments. Because this should be no accident, your lifeline for speedy growth is an active and vibrant development plan. 

Don’t be a victim of your environment. Take ownership for your growth rings, and you will find yourself part of the canopy, not the understory, in your organization! 

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