One of the greatest challenges for leaders is focusing on the invisible part of what we do.  Even as we go about the business of getting things done every day, we are also doing something else.  For better or worse, we are forming and shaping the people on our teams into into their future selves; we are leaving a leadership legacy.  A short walk in an old-growth forest on the Oregon coast yielded a surprising discovery about this truth, and what it means to really have an inpact as a leader.

What is Your Leadership Legacy?

Trees On Stilts

The signs directed us along a pin needle-laden path that paralleled a cool, burbling stream.  We followed it deep into the forest, anticipating our first encounter with the famously large trees of the Pacific Northwest.  Yet even when you are expecting it, it’s hard not to be amazed at the scale of trees this size.

This particular tree was a Sitka Spruce, and it was over 500 years old.  It was growing strong out here on the Oregon coast even before Colombus was able to convince King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to back his risky voyage to “discover” the new world.  It was inspiring just to be in the presence of a living thing that has endured for so long.

But aside from it’s amazing age, there was another feature that made this tree interesting:  It was on stilts.  It was almost as if the tree had miraculously formed a few feet above the ground, and grew its trunk skyward even as it sent its roots down in search of the soil.  Over time, the roots thickened until a natural tunel formed at the base of the tree.

There were several other large trees in the forest around us that were also formed in the same way.  But how?

Nurse Trees

Of course, thanks to a helpful sign provided by the National Park Service, the answer was soon revealed:  Nurse trees.

Leadership Legacy - The Nurse TreeIn the coastal Oregan forest climate, trees are always in search of the most fertile ground to grow in.  Often, the richest evironment happens to be atop a fallen tree laying on the forest floor.  The nutrients from this nurse tree form the perfect starting point for a new tree to set its roots and begin to reach skyward.

By providing a rich, positive environment and a starting point several feet in the air, it had given the young spruce a head start in the race for sunlight.

As grand as that Sitka Spruce was, it was the legacy left by the nurse tree that impressed me more.  The nurse tree had made it all possible.

As leaders, shouldn’t we aspire to do the same?

How do we lift up, nourish, and support the people on our teams?  How do we help them grow into greatness?

Leadership Legacy – The Takeaway

Once we are gone – to a new job, a new team, or a new chapter in our lives, one of the great hallmarks of truely effective leadership is the success of the people we leave behind.

If your team collapses like a house of cards the moment you walk away, it’s not an indication of how important and indispensable you were.  It’s a sign of how poorly nourished your team was.

A positive leadership legacy is one which makes the team stronger, more capable, and ready to continue the mission long after you have gone.

That’s your leadership legacy – the invisible yet critical role you play on your team.

That nurse tree is now long gone, but the outline of its form is still clearly visible.

And now it’s legacy is so great that there are trails through the deep woods so people can come look in wonder at the giant spruce that it made possible.

We can take encouragement from the nurse tree.  The invisible business of leaving a leadership legacy leaves very real mark in the physical world.

You can see it in the success of those who follow.

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