Trees and Companies

Author: Dick Bolles

Went for a walk in the woods, the other day. It was toward sunset, and there was a breeze. I'm something of a dunce. I do not always remember that trees are actually alive, when I walk among them. It is easy some days for me to forget that, and think of them as impersonal "things" rather than living "beings." But not this day.

Each tree was in constant restless motion, and was dabbed with golden color from the West. The sound – the rustle and murmur of the waving branches in the breeze – made it sound almost as if they were talking. And I understood why our ancestors, some of them anyway, thought there was a spirit in every stone and a spirit in every tree. I understood also why theologians long ago, some of them anyway, argued that the various parts of Nature are not merely alive but are actually creatures, going through their own life cycle from birth to death. And, how Nature (taken as a whole) was endowed by its creator from the beginning with a certain freedom of will, as all creatures are. But had, over time, "fallen from grace," and degenerated from its original design and plan.

The story is a myth, of course (eternal truth wrapped in a temporal story), and represents an attempt to explain the two sides of Nature that puzzle us all: on the one hand, the Nature of sweetness and beauty, of flowers, sunsets, butterflies, rainbows and trees; and, on the other hand, the Nature of petulance and destructiveness, of hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, plagues, pestilence and famine. The myth is trying to say that this schizophrenic creature isn't Nature as it was intended to be. Somehow, it has degenerated from its original design and plan. 

Science laughs such mythology to scorn.

And I'd love to agree with the laughter – chemical engineering and physics were my majors in college – but frankly when I'm out walking in the woods my sympathies are with the poets and theologians. 

They at least are trying to explain, through myth, fable and story, two things:

  1. How the "things" in this world that are alive, and are fellow creatures with us, are more in number than we normally think.
  2. And how the greatest danger facing living "things" is not that they will die, but that while yet alive they will degenerate into something that is so far from their original design and intention, as to become a grotesque caricature of their former self.

Those are themes worth thinking about during a walk in the woods, among the trees.

They are also worth thinking about when we are at our place of work.

For, often we tend to talk about a company the same way we often talk about trees: as though a company were an impersonal "thing," more akin to a car than anything else. The reality is that a company is, in a very real sense, "a being" or creature. A company has the familiar life cycle of living things: conception, birth, infancy, growth, maturity, illness, and death. And, like all living things, its greatest danger is not that it will fail and go out of business (die). Its greatest danger is that while it is yet alive, and theoretically thriving, it will in its interior life, its character, and values, degenerate into something that is so far from its original nature, design and intention, that it becomes a hollow mockery of its once vital life force and energy. My ear is bent week after week with phone conversations from acquaintances, detailing how this company or that "is no longer the place it used to be." 

I've concluded that those running a company get to decide many important things, but none so important as how to keep a company from degenerating.

That's what the best owners and managers always pay attention to: what's happening to the company's soul, and character. 

They ask themselves questions like: "Once known for our admirable commitment to principle, and honesty, do we now tell lies without even blinking, in order to sew up contracts and riches?"

"Once known for intense loyalty to our employees, do we now treat them like dirt, scrambling over their bodies in our fixation to get to some pot of money down the road?" "Once known as a place of laughter and playfulness, are we now "all business" – dead serious and joyless – a place our employees now hate to come in to, each day?" 

And if the managers see, by such questions, that the company has indeed wandered far from its original character and values, they resolve to make new choices that will put the company back on track to its original generosity and caring.

Henry Thoreau stated the pathway back, for owners and managers alike. The formula is simple: "Be true to your work, your word, and your friend."