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Leadership Lessons from the Bonsai Tree – Four Stages of Transition Every Leader Must Understand

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Bonsai Trees are awesome to see. They have so much character. Recently, while passing some contemplative time looking at a couple of my favorites, it occurred to me that one reason I like them is because they say so much about what it takes to become a distinguished leader. I’ll share why I feel that way and what it means for you as a leader and for developing leaders under your care.

I have never met anyone who was not impressed with the beauty and character of a Bonsai Tree. Even if you aren’t really into them, they catch your attention just because they are there. Something about them causes you to wonder what it took to shape them into what they are. You wonder what made them so unique and special. You know there is no other one quite like the one you see before you. You know it is special and it moves you. So too, it is with leaders.

A Bonsai Tree just doesn’t happen. Leaders, even natural leaders, don’t just happen. A lot of things make both what they come to be. Someone, something shapes the character of each over time.

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The Bonsai Artist shapes the Bonsai Tree and is acutely aware of four phases of transition for the Bonsai Tree.

Picking the Bonsai Tree

  • Keeping the Young Tree Healthy
  • Training the Tree
  • Displaying the Tree

There is a lot of correlation between what happens in each of these phases of development of the Bonsai Tree and what happens in the phases of development of a leader. To make this point, think “Leader” wherever you see “Tree” in the balance of this blog. I think you will find the transformation interesting.

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See Yourself as a Bonsai Artist. Whether you are your own Tree or you are someone developing Trees, see yourself as a Bonsai Artist. You are taking a tree to another place. When you are done with it, that tree will be transformed. It will be a Bonsai Tree. It will be something that inspires those that see it to be something greater themselves.
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Picking the Bonsai Tree. Millions upon millions of tree seeds germinate each year. Only a rare few evidence the inherent qualities that suggest the potential to become exceptional Bonsai Trees. For every one hundred seen to have potential, only one will mature to be worthy of display. The Bonsai Artist assesses the basic character of the young Tree. On its own, has the Tree developed in a manner that gives it the strength to accept the stress of training and display? Every component of the Tree is considered. The trunk must have the appropriate structure and taper. The roots must be observed to ensure they effective anchor the Tree; they must spread evenly from the trunk. Too much root moving in one direction could reflect inherent instability and weakness. The same is true of the branches. They should reflect even distribution and balance. The branches should not cross over and confuse one another. Such “contradiction” will make it difficult for the Tree to demonstrate consistency in form and flow. It is as if the Artist is determining the basic character and quality of the Tree. The question is, Does this tree have the inherent qualities and characteristics to become a perfect Bonsai Tree?”

The “perfect” Tree will only be the perfect Tree in the perfect environment. The Bonsai Artist has learned that a Tree that grows exceptionally well outdoors may wither and die if it is asked to mature indoors. In any case, the seedling Tree must be allowed to grow strong on its own, it must be allowed to assume its initial character before training is initiated. Bonsai Artist don’t always start their Tree from seeds. Sometimes they acquire promising seedlings. This isn’t necessarily bad; however, most would agree that a partially trained Tree could be a challenge because he or she must deal with the implications of the work that has previously been done, good, and bad.

Not every tree is born to be a Bonsai Tree. Some are born with the essential ingredients. With those inherent qualities, the tree learns to be a Bonsai Tree. Some work the developing Tree does on its own; a lot of what makes the Tree ultimately Bonsai comes from the things to which it is exposed and its reaction to those things.

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Keeping the Young Tree Healthy. The developing Tree is, like all living things, a product of its genes and the environments impact on those genes. The Bonsai Artist knows this and works with the Tree, in full consideration of its personality, to help it grow from and through the implications of changes in the environment. The Tree moves through repeating cycles. In the spring, it is full of energy and nutrients. It is growing. The Bonsai Artist encourages the growth, subtly shaping that growth to encourage the Tree to move in directions that are healthy for it and contribute to how it will eventually shine in display. In summer, the Tree thrives. It is still growing using a lot of its stored energy and nutrients. In fall, the Trees’ energies are a little down. The Bonsai Artist knows it is time to do a little work on the Tree. It is time to add nutrients, trim things up a little, and to prune the Tree back a little where inappropriate growth has occurred. In winter, the Tree almost goes to sleep. The Bonsai Artist knows the Tree will come back. The Bonsai Artist just ensures the Tree has the water it needs. The Tree is not overworked; the Artist knows the Tree will decide when its winter is over. The Artist knowingly waits for his or her protégé to revitalize. Across these stages, the Bonsai Artist monitors the Tree to ensure it has the right amount of exposure (to light and dark). The Tree is protected from extremes. It is provided the food and water it needs, in just the right amounts.

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Training the Tree. Bonsai has a lot of different styles. The Bonsai Artist may know each of the styles. However, Artists tend to align with a particular style and this style is reflected in how he or she works with the Tree. Not all Trees are adaptable to a particular style. The Tree may reject the training style or the Bonsai Artist may see that the Tree needs another Artist. The Artist doesn’t declare the Tree to be a bad Tree for this. It is just reality. Different styles produce different Trees. Each Tree will attract a particular audience if the training is sound and the Tree has inherent quality. The Bonsai Artist assesses each Tree and determines the strength of influence (shaping wire or discipline) to be used. Too little force will have no influence at all. Too much force might actually break a branch and destroy the Tree. In any case, the Artist actively shapes the Tree. He or she clips and prunes to cause the tree to grow in the right way.

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Displaying the Tree. Displaying a Tree is all about exposure. It is a package of Right Place, Right Time, Right Way, and Right Intent. Some Bonsai Artists put their Trees on display early in their development, while others hold their Trees back until they are mature. Either way, where they are displayed and when they are displayed matters. An Artist sets his or her Tree up for failure if it is inappropriately exposed or displayed. Putting a fledging Tree up against a bunch of mature Trees might set that Tree up for unfair criticism. Putting a mature Tree on display with a group of younger Trees, might cause the mature Tree to be discounted. I have seen beautiful Bonsai Trees fail to impress because they have been placed in the wrong exhibit. It is critical for the Artist to be clear about the purpose of putting the Tree on display. It is an issue of Intended Result. When the Artist knows what he or she wants to accomplish with the Tree, he or she can create context. The Tree can be placed in the correct container and it can be surrounded by other features. Some Trees stand strong alone. Some Trees need other features around them to bring out their perfection.

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The Tree, the Artist and the Leader. The perfect Bonsai Tree is nevera finished work. Part of its beauty and character stems from its continuous training and learning. It is a continual work in process. We, as leaders, are like that Tree. We never stop learning what it means to be a leader. We see examples, good and bad, in every other leader. We compare ourselves to other leaders. People around us compare us to other leaders. We are examples to others of what it is to be a leader. We endeavor to develop other leaders. We should see ourselves as Artists in the process. We are the Artist perfecting ourselves or helping other leaders to become perfect specimens.

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Get a Bonsai Tree. Put it in your office or workplace. Take opportunities to be contemplative with it. Remind yourself of the similarities between that Tree and you, the leader. Take heart, you have or can have the strength and character of that Tree. Bring out your Artist. Bring out your Tree.

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  • Andrew An-Quan Vo's picture

     Hi Dr. Zakirul,

    Leadership is one of my beloved topics. I have a Master degree in HRM with an academic  exellence award in Australia. I did the course Leadhership and Self-development and just want to share some of my thoughts on your topics.

    I agree that leaders are made not born, which I did argue on my project and what you said about Bonsai Tree in the beginning very much supported that. Skills - soft and hard you can develop and grow in time However, sometimes I have another track of thinking - leaders born not made in some cases. Anyway, my thought, my questions are the Bonsai Tree is in its own pot, who or where are followers? Without followers how can the Bonsai Tree itself determines as a "leader" My next question, if the Bonsai Tree is a leader, who is the artist, author that engineers and creates "the leader"? and What do we call them?

    Kind regards, Andrew

    "From little things, big things grow"


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