What Can Leaders Learn From Trees?

–Worth a Listen, Look or Read #9

At the root of it, a lot.

Jeff Ikler here for Kirsten Richert with our weekly “Getting Unstuck” mini-feature: “Worth a Listen, Look or Read.” Here in about five minutes, we extend the main idea of the week through a new way of thinking, unique content, or critical skills to help leaders at any level get unstuck.

The idea

This week we chatted with Assistant Superintendent Constantino “Costa” Aquilar regarding his district’s now six-year shift to broaden its student’s post-high school opportunities. Augmenting what was a typical course sequence, the Merced Union High School District (CA) now offers more than a dozen career and technical education pathways plus multiple opportunities to earn college credit.

The district’s shift is remarkable not only for its scope, but also because of the extensive communication that fosters it. Any shift as complex as this one inevitably stirs up a lot of emotion and, well, fear. Change is hard, but as we wrote in our book, Shifting: How School Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change, successful change agents focus on the human aspects of the shift as much or more than they do on the technical aspects. And Costa balances those two concerns very, very well.

For us, it was making sure that we were sitting down with our teachers and our administrators to help them with the change — to teach them about building capacity and how to lead because many of them are leaders, and they don’t realize it. When you’re implementing a change like this, you have to spend a lot of time, working one-on-one with people to make sure they understood what it means to run a program, and what it means to work with our parents and community.

Extending the idea

OK, stressing the importance of communication within a change initiative is not a new idea, but it does deserve to be re-emphasized because many leaders still resort to managing the technical aspects of the change process. Focusing on resources, schedules and training are more tangible and, well, less “squishy” than the human concerns. That narrow focus, unfortunately, usually contributes to change failure.

So, if your change initiative can’t afford to fail, let’s see what we can learn from an ongoing process of adaptation and change in nature where “communication” is required not just to achieve goals, but for survival. Let’s look at the community of trees within a forest.

In the TED Talk included here, Professor Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia shares what she’s learned from almost 30 years of studying trees – what’s above ground, but especially what’s below, the underground networks of roots and fibers. And what she found was that trees of different species “talk” to one another. They share information, wisdom, and nutrients.

In this fascinating talk, you’ll hear Professor Simard use words and phrases such as “two-way communication,” “sharing,” “interdependence,” “cooperators,” “nurturing,” and “symbiosis.” Ultimately,

Forests aren’t simply collections of trees, they’re complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees and allow them to communicate, and they provide avenues for feedbacks and adaptation, and this makes the forest resilient.

Putting the idea to work

1. So, here’s a question for you: What if we look at our schools and districts as a “forest” with interdependence between its “trees” – its people? How might that perspective serve to improve our communication and interactions?

2. A couple of years ago, I was coaching an Assistant Principal who was challenged to look at her role as one of leading people in addition to overseeing curriculum and instruction. As a result, she was doing a lot of directing as opposed to building capacity. She saw her role as needing to have the answers rather than developing staff to come up with their own answers and a supporting rationale. Her staff’s “just tell me what to do” attitude and low morale were predictable.

Mentally she got it; she understood that it was in the long-term interest of the school to build leaders in the classrooms, but she couldn’t ease up on the reins of control. So I asked her “What would your daily role look like if you spent 90% of your time developing and supporting people instead of trying to manage programs?” You’ve heard the old expression, “She looked at me like I had two heads”? So I downshifted from fifth to first gear and asked “What’s one small step you could take toward developing people instead of things?” Her continuing defensiveness proved to be her undoing, and she was eventually replaced in the role.

Here are some questions to think about:

  • Is your instinct to focus on processes or people?
  • If you’re in a leadership role in your district or school, serving as an administrator or as a teacher, what are you specifically doing to develop people?
  • Is your communication style one of telling versus one of asking and listening?

Also “Worth a Listen, Look or Read”


It’s common these days to hear educators express concern about their students. COVID 19 has been a trauma-inducing experience for many kids. But many kids were already emotionally challenged for a variety of reasons. How they got there and what we can do about is the subject of the book Reclaiming Our Students: Why Children Are More Anxious, Aggressive, and Shut Down Than Ever―And What We Can Do About It by Canadian educators Hannah Beach and Tamara Strijack.


Supporting the book is a just-released 12-part professional development video series. In this series you’ll learn:

• How to build, feed, and protect the student-teacher relationship.
• Why children are anxious or bossy, aggressive or checked out, and what teachers can do to address these behavioral issues at their root.
• How you can help students and classes shift their identity as the “problem student” or “bad class”.
• Understanding what’s behind the behavior & how to help.
• How to create the conditions for change.
• How we can build thriving learning communities.


Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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  1. Hi Jeff, this is a fascinating post an dI truly enjoyed reading it.

    In particular I find your questions and story with the woman quite interesting. Your questions probe into the issue very well:
    Is your instinct to focus on processes or people?
    If you’re in a leadership role in your district or school, serving as an administrator or as a teacher, what are you specifically doing to develop people?
    Is your communication style one of telling versus one of asking and listening?

    Amazing for me is also my post *due for publication on BIZCATALYST most likely tomorrow) is my use of the tree metaphors and why and how they grow upwards and the roots downwards. I concluded that great leaders are like plants and my reasoning provided to answers to your questions here.

    Yes, a growing tree allows for the growth of other trees.

  2. Carol — Thanks for reading and commenting. (I know you didn’t listen to the audio version! Ha!!!)

    You’re spot on. My experience is that many educational “leaders” don’t make the transition from process to people. Part of that is training. Many certification programs are still focused largely on tactical and compliance issues — both critical for the effective management of a district or school. Some advance degree programs, however, are now covering essential people-focused topics such as EQ.

    Having worked in both worlds – education and corporate – leadership differences are negligible. So much of what we talk about on our podcasts could easily apply to the world of business and vice versa.

    The good news, educators’ book shelves are also becoming increasingly crowded with what were traditionally business books, e.g., Good to Great, and some savvy ed leaders are using language such as “getting the right people on the bus.”

  3. These are really excellent questions, Jeff:

    Is your instinct to focus on processes or people?
    If you’re in a leadership role in your district or school, serving as an administrator or as a teacher, what are you specifically doing to develop people?
    Is your communication style one of telling versus one of asking and listening?

    I’m not that familiar with the educational system, but given these questions it appears that people are just people, no matter what profession they hold. In corporate America, there is a hierarchy that SHOULD move from process to people – front line managers who focus on process through executives who SHOULD focus on people. So many times, promotions to executive level occur because the manager excelled at process and no one tells them the game has changed..