Nurturing Young Leaders

Nurse Tree

Welcome to the final Leadership Lesson from the Saguaro Cactus. I never expected this level of inspiration from a desert plant.

One of the things that I noticed about the young Saguaro cacti is that they sprout and grow in the shadow of another desert plant. They do not sprout and grow in the shadow of another Saguaro cactus.

I found that fascinating.

They are found in the shadow of what is called a “nurse tree” This is a larger, faster-growing tree that shelters a smaller, slower-growing tree or plant. The nurse tree can provide shade, shelter from wind, or protection from animals who would feed on the smaller plant.

In the Sonoran desert, Palo Verde, Ironwood or mesquite trees serve as nurse trees for young Saguaro cacti. As the Saguaro grows and becomes more acclimated to the desert sun, the older tree may die, leaving the Saguaro alone. In fact, as the Saguaro grows larger it may compete for resources with its nurse tree, and thus, hasten the death of the tree that protected and nurtured it. Consequently, young Saguaros are often seen near trees, but old Saguaros are not.

What does this have to do with leadership?

I am not sure it does.  In fact, I think it really has to do with the relationship between those that surround and, in many ways, nurture leaders and encourage leadership.

The first thing that I notice is that the nurturing person is many times not another leader. However, let me say that I firmly believe in the value of mentoring by those who have direct and greater experience in specific leadership areas than I do. And therefore, I need those mentors in my life. But leaders can gain great value from mentoring or nurturing by other influences that are not leaders themselves.

But look at the example of the nurse trees and the young cactus. The cost to the nurse tree is substantial. Many give their own lives so that the young cactus can grow. And at the very least, the nurse tree is outlived and eclipsed by the Saguaro.

What is the leadership lesson for us today?

I think the greatest lesson to be learned from the relationship between the young Saguaro and the nurse tree is that it is, in fact, a relationship. The young cactus is not growing there in that location accidentally. This its the best place for it to sprout and begin a life that may reach close to 200 years.

But it is important to understand that the cost to those that nurture is substantial. And often that nurturing is best done by a completely different species. That goes against what we would expect in nature.

I am very fortunate to have been nurtured by some incredible people that were not actually leaders themselves. They were incredibly talented and gifted in their own right. But they were not leaders. However, I recognized very early on that they had had incredible value and a place of prominence in my life and in my development as a leader. And I know that it cost them a great deal to invest in me and in my growth.

But they were not called to be leaders. They were called to be nurturers. How about you?

Do you have some “nurse trees” that are providing shade, protection, and nourishment to you? Or do you think that you can only learn from another leader?

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I am the husband of a beautiful and wonderful woman. I am the father of two of the greatest kids on the planet. I am a father-in-law to a great young woman. And I am Papa to three very special grandchildren. In my spare time I am an active blogger and writer. And if there is any time left over, I work with small non-profit organizations and churches on the topics of change management, crisis intervention and leadership development.

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