“You can’t plant a forest,” a friend said to me recently. He was speaking in general terms, saying: it’s a physical impossibility.  After mentally wrestling with the concept for a moment, the phrase struck me with its deep, practical wisdom – and its vital implications for organizational leaders.

But wait, you might be saying.  What about the story that’s been going around about the guy who single-handedly planted a 1,360 acre forest in India? 

Well, as much as it’s a truly heart-warming story, the way it’s presented has important inaccuracies.

A forest is infinitely more complex than a collection of trees. It’s a dynamic process of relationships between many species, endlessly responsive to changes in weather and countless other variables. In this way, it forms a living, creative, self-regulating whole. We can steward it, participating with nature’s underlying intelligence and contributing to its health, as the Indian man did so spectacularly. But we can’t really “plant” a forest in all its dynamic living complexity.

In the same way, it isn’t appropriate to say that I “created” or “grew” my children. At most, I am stewarding their lives until they are able to do so themselves. As Kahlil Gibran wrote: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”

So what changes, then, when we see our organizations in the same way, as the dynamic, complex living systems that they are?

First, it calls us to develop a thorough understanding of the conditions life needs to thrive. (I’ve written about those conditions here.) It’s hard to participate and contribute if you don’t fully understand the process.

Second, seeing our organizations as living systems raises questions about the goals we traditionally set for ourselves within them. What if, like that Indian man, our goal were to enrich life as fully as possible, creating ever more vibrancy and resilience? What if life were recognized as the true bottom line, with money simply a means to that end? What would become newly apparent? What would become possible with such clear focus on enabling life to thrive?

Third, it’s quite a different personal stance to manage and control (equivalent to planting) than it is to steward life. Stewardship of a living organization implies care, observation and humility, paired (paradoxically) with fierce commitment.

In response to this last point, my friend Seb Paquet urged, “Keep at it. Humble leaders are still a rare breed.” Rare, maybe. But not entirely absent. Here in Montreal, a whole tribe of them come to mind. Tolu Ilesanmi of Zenith Cleaners. AJ Javier of language school CLC Montreal.  The leaders of raw food company Crudessence, along with the company’s internal cross-functional Community of Stewards.  Charles-Mathieu Brunelle, Julie Bourbonnais and others at Espace pour la vie, Montreal’s coalition of nature museums. Every past and present leader of meals-on-wheels provider Santropol Roulant.

All of them deeply embody stewardship, exactly as I’ve described it. And what I hear from them is that this stance powerfully delivers the triple prize of creativity, adaptability and self-regulation – hallmarks of living systems, and highly desirable characteristics for any organization.

It seems that we can’t really single-handedly plant a forest, or an organization. But through our planting, we can steward something beautiful and nourishing into being.

What other changes can you imagine when we see every organization as Life’s longing for itself?

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