The Oak and the Reed
It is the rare leader who is capable of sustaining the strength and conviction of the oak while, at the same time, summoning the ability to be adaptive and resilient like the reed. But it is the mastery of this paradox that lies at the heart of effective leadership, particularly in stormy times.
Growing up in Southern California, I recall marveling at the way the iconic palm trees seemed to defy the laws of physics as they swayed and bent against the region’s Santa Ana winds. It wasn't until recently that I began to see the palm tree as a valuable metaphor for leadership in turbulent times.
In one of his fables, Aesop describes a conversation between the oak and the reed. The proud, strong oak tree is overheard extolling its virtues while belittling the tiny reed’s unwillingness to stand upright and instead bend with the wind. During a particularly strong storm, the oak tree breaks and comes crashing down to the ground to meet the vindicated reed who has survived and remains unharmed. In some versions of the fable, the oak acknowledges his predicament, yet replies, “I am still an oak.” Whatever meaning you derive from this story, it raises an important and relevant question during these highly uncertain and challenging times: Is it better to be an oak or to be a reed?
Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, asked a somewhat similar question to CEOs in his famous 2011 essay, “Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO.” While excellent in many respects, the essay suffers from positioning the distinction between a wartime CEO and a peacetime CEO as a mutually exclusive choice. I have argued, instead, that CEOs must have the qualities of both at all times. So too with the oak and the reed. It is the rare leader who is capable of sustaining the strength and conviction of the oak while, at the same time, summoning the ability to be adaptive and resilient like the reed. But it is the mastery of this paradox that lies at the heart of effective leadership, particularly in stormy times.
This is where the palm tree can be so instructive. It almost perfectly exemplifies the integration of the oak and the reed. It has the properties of a tree and the structure of grass. It is the palm tree, not the wartime general, that serves as the best guide to leadership today. As I think about my own leadership, I think back to those windy Southern California days and realize that the famous palm trees of my childhood were offering me a lesson in leadership and life. I hope they do for you too.