By Vivek Bapat
Banyans are among the world’s largest and longest-living trees — one in India is more than 200 years old and is reported to be the world’s largest tree. Bigger than the average Wal-Mart, it has a canopy of more than 19,000 square meters. Not surprisingly, this visual distinctiveness has come to symbolize magnificence, immortality, and stature — attributes typically associated with strong, stable leadership. Particularly, in South East Asia, where it grows, the Banyan also has deep cultural reverence. It is designated as the National Tree of India. Leadership Institutes, conferences, and management gurus reference the mighty banyan in their teachings.
There are good reasons the metaphor is so popular. Like the banyan, many well-regarded leaders get their start by capitalizing on a nascent opportunity. Similar to the branches and roots of the banyan, they flourish by surrounding themselves with like-spirited colleagues, bonding around the core. They successfully expand their span of control outward from the center, gathering more influence over time.
However, the same attributes that spawn initial success also expose some intrinsic flaws. As the banyan’s roots grow out from the center, into what resembles a formidable trunk, it completely surrounds and suffocates the original host tree, leaving a hollow core at the center. Correspondingly, leaders who grow their influence like the great banyan can unwittingly smother the initial spark of innovation and disruptive thinking at the core of an organization’s ethos — that magic that made it successful in the first place.
As they grow, banyans seek to dominate surrounding trees, discouraging other plants to grow in the dense canopy of their leaves. In the same way, as leaders’ influence grows, success can feed into their egos, encouraging them to surround themselves exclusively with executives who constantly validate and reflect their own beliefs. Ultimately, this type of growth masks a lack of diversity and fresh thinking in the core of the management ranks causing many leaders, their teams and organizations to lose their way.
In stark contrast to the banyan is a small weed that lives an unremarkable, fleeting life — the dandelion.
From conventional reasoning, you’d be hard pressed to find a management guru who would recommend that we lead like dandelions. But, just as improbable as it sounds, could the small, frail dandelion — a sworn pest of the suburban yard, in fact, offer a better metaphor for modern day leadership?
Further inspection reveals some interesting characteristics that correlate. Dandelions fall under a class known as beneficial weeds, which help the plants around them. Dandelions do this by sending taproots deep into the ground. These taproots pull nutrients up to the surface, improving the quality of the soil and feeding shallow-rooted plants nearby. Dandelions also attract insects that enable pollination, like bees, which help other flowering plants. Plants that might not otherwise have a chance to germinate or survive get a shot at life because of the nutrients and insects that dandelions send their way. Yes, dandelions are prolific and fight for territory, but they don’t grow large and they fade quickly after blooming, giving other species a chance to thrive. They may not be the showiest plants, but they leave the environment a better place.
The resilient, flexible, nurturing style of the dandelion might be more emblematically better suited to today’s modern digital world and its constant change than the rigid, inflexible style of leadership reflected by the banyan. Faster than ever before, technology-led disruption is wiping out companies that rest too long on the laurels of their past success. Like the dandelion, which knows its time is short, new leaders now have months, not decades, to succeed. Like the dandelion, leaders should use a faster, agile, flexible mindset to explore and exploit new opportunities presented by constantly challenging the status-quo, even when they are growing.
A dandelion can find a way to grow with the most minimal resources; who hasn’t seen one popping up between the cracks in a concrete sidewalk? Similarly, today’s most resilient digital companies are lean and dandelion-tough. While in the past, disruptive ideas often starved and died due to lack of capital investments, today, the democratization of technology — in computing, cloud, social, and big-data analytics — let business leaders deploy, test, and scale new ideas more cheaply than before.
The banyan might seem mighty on the outside, but an old banyan has a hollow core. In a fast-changing world, leaders must preserve the personal authenticity, moral compass, and clarity that defines them, especially as their companies grow. Just as the dandelion helps other plants to flourish, leaders must focus not on expanding their own empires (in banyan-like fashion) but on allowing others to thrive. Resilient leaders choose their metaphors carefully, keep their egos in check, and leave their environments richer than they found them, clearing the way for new leaders to take root.