The Most Important Social Network You’ve Never Heard Of
The expression “to see the forest for the trees” is common in the business world, denoting someone who lifts their gaze above the day-to-day to see the bigger picture. It refers to having a vision or being visionary, arguably the defining quality of leadership. Yet, what if you lift your gaze too high or for too long? What could you be missing?
Leaders know that vision is meaningless without context, without understanding the ecosystem. The metaphor of forest/trees can provide this important context. The trees are visible and tangible. They are critical to getting work done. Yet, leaders must look even deeper. Details matter to strategy execution, to clients, to employees. In short, we often overlook the mysterious network that supports the trees and ensures that the forest is healthy as a whole.
The Soil That Sustains Us
Over time, scientists have discovered the amazing biosystems and organisms that live beneath us. These invisible networks of mycorrhizal fungi connect, nourish, revitalize, protect, and support ecosystems, acting like the Earth’s internet, sending messages, information, and resources in a symbiotic hub-and-spoke system. Mycorrhizal networks allow trees to “talk” to each other.
What can leaders learn from networks of simple organisms like fungi? They may offer a metaphor for the vitally important, but unseen factors that sustain an organization, such as values and behavioral norms. As ecologist Peter Wohlleben writes in his best-selling book The Hidden Life of Trees, forests are living systems that can shift resources to support needs in a given area, thanks to the network of fungi beneath the forest floor. In times of growth and abundance, how does your organization organize, share and allocate resources? Similarly, when there is a threat to the trees in a given area, the trees can send an alert and reallocate resources to keep the whole forest strong. When dealing with a contentious issue or client, how do you listen and what messages are you sending? In times of distress, how do you manage resources to gird and protect those around you?
Mycorrhizal fungi may be “invisible” to us, but they encode over 450 million years of wisdom crafted by nature. This wisdom results in behaviors that have created and sustained life in abundance. Within our organizations, a myriad of interactions sustain the health of the health of the organization over time.
Lowering Your Gaze
Yes, the forest matters, as do the trees. Yet, don’t overlook the soil, along with all of its wisdom, that sustains us every day. To tune into this wisdom, ask yourself: what values and behaviors show up in your organization? How do they show up in both the vision and day-to-day? When you explore these questions, you are rooting your understanding of your organization in the behaviors and values that create a rich humus for culture, experience, and impact.