Bend the Tree While it is Young

Is Society doing enough to develop leaders or potential leaders from a young age?

I recently received an email from a reader with the following comments:

“Less attention has been given to the leaders of tomorrow. By that I mean a lot of organisations seem to only bother themselves about development of principled authentic leaders once their people have spent a lot of years in the organisation and are now in leadership positions or are about to be put in such positions.

We need to find leaders who are passionate about developing today’s young people into tomorrow’s leaders.

I am a young, educated South African who is not as excited about his country as many would expect.

To go through University only to find out after graduation that you cannot be hired is a great disappointment. I am not a special case. I know that there are many in my position which is very sad.

Please find leaders who can see the threat that this situation poses to the development of South Africa in the future.”

While the intention of these comments may also be to highlight issues around how young graduates are integrated into society, it re-awakened inside me the realization of a challenge that continues to haunt me. I will use two tree analogies to illustrate my point.

We had a massive tree in the back garden that grew to a point where two main arteries moved apart in separate directions.

It became clear that these two thick branches could eventually tear away from each other and one would fall onto our or the neighbours roof.

To prevent this from happening we were advised to cut one whole branch off or to take the entire tree out. The tree also had some disease and bore less and less leaves.

We postponed what needed to be done, went on holiday instead and one week later received a call informing us that the one branch broke off and landed on the roof of our neighbour’s granny flat, causing considerable damage. We had to take out the entire tree just before Christmas, coordinating it from ice-cold Washington DC.

Sometimes the same thing happens in organizations.

We “plant” individuals, who have never been exposed to leadership development in management positions, without training them adequately.

Because of their bad habits, inadequate skills and distorted beliefs about leadership that was formed over decades, they end up damaging others around them, hurting the organisation in the process.

We then try to bring about change in the manager’s behavior through a leadership development programme, which often requires fairly major “surgery”, like “cutting” old beliefs regarding leadership out of his belief system and replacing these with more accurate, effective and true beliefs. This is dramatic, as is the cutting off of an entire branch of a huge tree.

Such change in behavior is of course, possible if the right developmental building blocks to bring about real change are in place. But, often these building blocks are not in place, real change does not happen and then organisations must take even more dramatic steps like getting rid of the manager (taking out the entire tree).

This brings me to the deeper and related concern that haunts me: bending the tree while it is still young. Let me illustrate with another tree analogy. We planted a pecan nut tree in our garden. I thought it grew very fast. But, we soon realised that it was growing skew. We left it for a while and then tried temporary methods to straighten it, like tying it to a pole in the ground right next to the trunk. But, this did not work. The time arrived when we realised if we did not do something more effectively this tree would remain skew.

It took some effort, but we tied a rope around the tree and then to a wall on the north side of the garden to pull it straight and left it this way for some time. We “saved” the tree from growing crookedly: we changed its destiny by intervening just at the right time.

In fact we almost left it too late, but today this tree stands straight and tall like a pole. It is currently, and in the future will probably be, in much better condition than the tree in the back garden, because someone cared enough to shape it while it was still young.

My reader touches on a truth that many individuals’ formal exposure to leadership development happens much later in life, when habits, values, beliefs are firmly entrenched, after they have eventually proved themselves and are promoted into management positions.

To develop such leaders, to get them to see life differently can be a challenge, especially when there is a lack of humility.

To add to my comments above, sometimes it may be like trying to bend a tilted and thick tree trunk straight and when one realises this cannot be done one may then resort to simply trimming the branches – a bit of cosmetic change. This may make a difference, but it is not always sustainable, deep change and the risk is that leaders may return to their old habits.

I asked Sullivan O Carroll, CEO Nestle how much of who he is today, closer to the end of his career, was established during his formative, childhood years. His answer was probably about 60-70 percent. If this is even close to the truth it is a shocking revelation. It highlights the challenge of getting someone to change when they are in their 40’s, 30’s and even much younger.

How does one bend or change the tree? It can only be done through a dramatic, difficult process.  

I am not for one moment advocating that leadership development past a certain age is a waste of time. At TowerStone Leadership Centre we work with several leaders that are older yet humble enough to change, do introspection and make the necessary changes, no matter how difficult.

But, it mostly takes longer, is more traumatic, requires a great deal of humility from the learner’s side and can be a rather expensive exercise.

My main concern is whether we as a society are doing enough to develop leaders or potential leaders from a young age – bending them while they are young.

I know there are some noble efforts to do this, but is it enough? Are we doing enough at school level? Are we doing enough in families, which I believe to be the first leadership school in society?

Should organisations set aside part of their leadership development budgets to develop the children of their employees as well?

What more can be done?

This question haunts me on a regular basis.

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Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Founder of Future CEOs™ and co-host of the Future CEOs™ show on, Gareth seeks to empower high potential young executives and ambitious entrepreneurs as they push for CEO status.

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