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Management Lessons From the Mighty Oak Tree

October 8, 2010

Why do oaks grow to dominate the space surrounding them?  What traits make the oak so successful?  These were the questions I pondered while sweeping some acorns off of my car before starting my commute home from work.  I have always admired the oak.  Studying trees and plants has long been a hobby of mine.  So maybe it would be interesting to see what the mighty oak can teach us about management success…

First, most acorns have the ability to sprout and begin growing a new oak tree immediately when they drop to the ground in the fall.  This is not a common trait.  Many other tree and plant seeds need a period of “over-wintering” before they can be sprouted.  To be successful as managers, we must begin to build and edify our employees from the first day we meet them.  After all, they will be the ones to replace us when we eventually move on.

In the event of a loss of the main trunk and other above ground parts of the tree, the roots of a young oak sapling have the ability to regenerate and grow a new shoot until they are over ninety years old.  It is possible that you may come across a young oak in the forest and think, what a small tree?  Probably only a few years old….and you may very well be right.  The tree may be only a few years old, but the roots could be over a hundred years old.  As successful managers we must always be able to roll with the punches and quickly adapt to the changes in our workplace.  Take a hit, get knocked down, but then come back again stronger.  We must set the example to our employees that persistence is always rewarded.  If the first attempt does not work, then quickly regroup and try again.  We must always keep working until our objective is achieved.

Oaks are some of the only trees that are able to withstand a forest fire.  Their bark is so tough that it can protect the tree from severe forest fires that wipe out all of the other above ground vegetation in the area.  To be great managers, we must be able to avoid getting burned.  What I mean by this is that we must institute stringent risk controls in our organization to avoid a dreaded black swan event.  This is the type of mistake that can bankrupt a company or bring a previously successful manager’s career to a swift end.  I am sure Jerome Kerviel’s managers wish they had been more vigilant…

Lastly, oaks primarily rely on animals such as squirrels, birds, and deer to spread their seeds.  But these same animals could also be viewed as the oak’s predators, since they all vigorously consume the acorns that the oak produces.  But the oak does not see it this way.  It knows that to achieve its goal of procreation, it must properly compensate these creatures for their services.  As good managers, we must strive to properly compensate our employees for the work that they perform.  We must avoid treating employees as an expense, and instead, we must treat the compensation provided to them as an investment in our company’s future.  A great manager has the ability to equitably balance the competing interests of various stakeholders in an organization.

So next time you pass an oak in the woods, take some time to reflect on the important management lessons this mighty tree can teach us all.

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