Organisations are like rainforests

When I was in Grade 6 I learnt about rainforests – about the canopy, made up of all the very tallest trees, about the understory, with all the medium-sized plants, and then the forest floor, where there’s not much light at all but there’s lots of life.

If you are a tree in a rainforest, the only way to become part of the canopy is if one of the very tallest trees falls down or dies. When this happens, a stream of light from the sun suddenly becomes available, and beams down into the understory. If you are a lucky understory tree nearby, with the potential to become a very big tree, you can take advantage of that light and shoot up to fill the canopy gap. But if all the very big canopy trees around you stay put, then you must stay put too. 

Organisations (businesses, not-for-profits, churches, schools, friendship-groups) have quite a bit in common with rainforests. There is usually a ‘canopy’ of leaders, with an ‘understory’ of others with some influence (but less than the canopy), and then a ‘forest floor’ which is made up of all the wonderful-awful plebs.

Generally the only way to develop into a leader is if there’s a gap in the canopy, or the layer above you. Then if you happen to be nearby – and have leadership potential – you can draw on the opportunities that stream through that gap, to become more fully developed.

Sometimes the leaders that make up the next layer won’t budge – in which case it is almost impossible to grow. When this happens, I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s best to move to the edge of the forest, where there’s a little less competition for light. It’s good that unlike trees in a forest, we are quite mobile.

Sometimes canopy-dwellers can put a lot of expectation on the forest-floor-dwellers: “Why don’t they show a bit more initiative?” “When I was their age, I was running five committees and cooking dinner for my younger siblings every night!”

What canopy-dwellers sometimes don’t realise is that they are the ones blocking the light.

Some questions:

Are you a canopy-dweller? Are there ways you can move over and make some room for an emerging leader? 

Are you a forest-floor dweller? Do you need to find the edge of the forest?