Thoughts on Silver Maples and Leadership

Maple Tree Leaves

There is a very large silver maple tree in my backyard. It’s beautiful and I have thanked the Lord for it many times. It’s also a bit of a strange tree in that it doesn’t seem to know when fall and winter have arrived: It’s the last tree in the area to turn color and the last to lose its leaves. It is also a high maintenance tree because its size means I and my neighbors have that many more leaves to clean up in autumn. (Which is why I bought a leaf blower/vac last fall!) In late spring, when it drops thousands upon thousands of seeds, I have another problem to deal with. Those seeds germinate quickly, so I “vacuum” them up with the mower as I cut the lawn. What I miss with the mower soon sprouts into little trees that I then spend the rest of the summer pulling out as I walk around the yard. In the 22 years I’ve lived here, I suspect this tree has dropped millions of seeds.

What if I had let all those seeds sit on the lawn and not mowed at all? (Let’s forget for a moment that the grass would soon become overgrown.) Each year, thousands of seeds would drop in my yard and soon germinate. Is it possible for my yard to support the life of all these trees? Is there enough soil and water to sustain them all to maturity? Certainly not. Some trees would survive, but the vast majority would die.

Next year the cycle would start again, complicated by the presence of new, albeit smaller trees that would also produce seeds. The large tree would also be larger, producing even more seeds. Again, a few trees might survive the new season and grow, but even fewer. Eventually, the health of my big tree would suffer, too.

What does this have to do with strategic leadership?

If you’re an effective leader, you are much like that silver maple in my backyard.

Effective leaders are fruitful, producing results that lead to more opportunities and more responsibilities.

Success on a project generates respect for your leadership and trust from other leaders. You get affirmed and feel valued. You’re having an impact! You’re making a real difference in people’s lives and in the organization! You want more of that, right? Yes!

So you are given more opportunities to apply your skills and exercise your leadership. In these new opportunities you interact with new people, clients, and teams. You continue to be effective and earn even more trust and respect.

It’s tempting to say “Yes” to even more projects for more opportunities to make a difference. It’s almost intoxicating to be affirmed by even more people.

Not so fast.

Remember my backyard? Remember what happens when too many trees take root? They start to die. Eventually, the big tree’s health is impacted.

Eventually, you, the leader, will see effectiveness drop, too. You might even suffer depression or a breakdown.

I’ve been reading Henry Cloud’s book, Necessary Endings. It’s been the most challenging book I’ve read in a long time, causing me to think deeply about my roles and responsibilities.

The subtitle of the book sums up its message very succinctly:
“The employees, businesses, and relationships that all of us have to give up in order to move forward.”

Cloud uses the metaphor of pruning a plant throughout the book. I had a big “Aha!” moment when I read this on page 46:
One reason pruning is needed is the fact that the bush produces more buds than it can bring to full maturity. Any bush that is alive and thriving is producing more and more buds every cycle. And any person or business that is thriving is doing the same. Life begets life. That is normal. But it can be too much, as well.

Effective leaders often find themselves in this potentially deadly cycle of success breeding too much opportunity. I say “deadly” because the result is eventually failed projects, broken relationships, and loss of leadership. Effective leaders often fail to engage in the necessary pruning that keeps their leadership “tree” healthy and strong.

In Necessary Endings, Cloud wrote about pruning three types of responsibilities:

  1. Those that are healthy, but not the best.
  2. Those that are sick and not going to get well.
  3. Those that are dead and taking up space from healthy and vibrant responsibilities.

(By the way, one reason my silver maple is so large, healthy, and beautiful is that every few years I pay someone to climb it and prune it.)

If you’re like my silver maple, producing much fruit each year, you need to be actively pruning your leadership responsibilities.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by Meri Sorgaard. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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