In working with leaders we inevitably observe a common trait in the truly revered ones:
A deeply ingrained mindset of service.
They know they will optimize both the output and the morale of their organizations and teams by waking up every morning and asking “How can I be in service today to the people I work with, and how can I be of service to the people who are the recipients of what we are creating?”
That mindset inevitably creates the two things that drive organizational success: outputs of real value for their users, and deep human connections within the organization.
At the same time, this mindset frequently couples with a dysfunctional companion: a self-limiting belief that their own receiving and nourishment is selfish and not in service to anyone other than themselves.
As part of my own bumpy growth as a leader, this presented itself as a pivotal challenge along path.
That’s when an acacia tree taught me a lesson from which there was no return.
At the time, as a creative leader in a growing organization I was running thin inside. I felt consistently as if I was moving forward through sheer will alone, and not riding on some deeper and truer wellspring of authentic energy that I felt should be at my source in this kind of effort. And there came a time when even that will began to sputter.
I was confused at this. My constant complaint to the Universe around me became, “I don’t understand — I want to give and provide and nurture the people around me. Thoroughly. Fully. Why, with that intention, do I feel myself running out? Why wouldn’t I be being filled with all the energy I would require for this?”
Around that time I was a few years into a meditation practice. Every morning at dawn I would walk down from our back porch and sit on a series of steps that overlooked the rich growth of our Topanga valley. I would close my eyes while still dark, then meditate and move through my own spiritual intentions and inventory, and then usually about an hour later, as I began to sense the growing light on my face, open my eyes again.
On this particular morning, I had brought my now consistent complaint into my meditation. I set an intention: “Let me see the greater truth behind this challenge so that I can emerge with new awareness in service to giving more to others.”
An hour later, as I began to feel the warmth of the sun on my cheeks and see the inside of my eyelids change from deep grey to pink, I sadly felt I had received no great answers, epiphanies, or insights. In begrudging acceptance of this, I opened my eyes.
Right in front of me was an acacia tree. One I had already witnessed through three seasons to that point. But this time, through the insistence of this challenge being so present in me, I stayed looking at it. It was in full unabashed bloom. Brazen and audacious casts of yellow leapt in every direction out of its cool and subdued green interior. It looked as if it was holding its own unique version of the Indian Holi festival where the only colored powder available was a vibrant and golden yellow, and everyone with hands was throwing it.
And yet, as awe-inspiring as that was, it wasn’t what really captured my attention.
What captured my attention was the strange and almost imperceptible movement I began to sense all around the surface of the tree. In my growing awareness, it moved from almost imperceptible, to loudly unignorable. While at first, through the fuzziness of my adjusting eyes, I had perceived it as one undulating cloud, it now was becoming clearer to me as being hundreds of individual beings hovering and dipping, hovering and dipping, hovering and dipping.
Soon, their forms began to individuate to me. I saw birds of all kinds, hummingbirds of all sizes, bees of all shapes, beetles of all colors, flies, scarabs, and a multitude of flying beings I couldn’t even identify. The brazen invitations of golden yellow had not gone unnoticed nor untaken by any of them. It was as if they and the tree recognized this finite window of rapture and were intent on drawing from it everything it they could. Hovering and dipping. Drinking to their fill. From one flower to another. Intent on not one golden well of nectar going unsavored or unemptied.
“Do you see this, Universe? Look at the acacia tree. It gives and gives and gives. It provides, and delights, and quenches the needs of an entire sea of beings all around it without so much as a pause. That’s what I want. Why is a a tree provided with this ability and not me? Why I am running so thin, but that acacia tree is in non-stop radiance and vibrancy while giving its all?”
And with that complaint, the Universe literally turned the world upside down.
I hadn’t been seeing the whole tree.
I had only been seeing half of the tree.
I became aware, that despite the illusion of my perception, the tree didn’t end where its trunk met the ground. Not at all. In fact, there was a whole other and equal tree under the ground, mirroring the tree above it.
Only the tree under the ground wasn’t giving, and giving, and giving.
It was taking, and taking, and taking.
It was drawing in and receiving. Just like above the ground where the trunk of the tree diverged and exploded into the sky with limbs and then branches and then shoots and then leaves and then flowers, so the trunk of the tree was diverging and exploding down into the earth as well. The trunk of the tree becoming first the limbs of roots, and then the branches of roots, and then the shoots of roots, finally ending with an uncountable amount of root hairs all incessantly sucking in all they could from the ground — its water, its nutrients, its minerals, and its life.
Inside the tree were vertical conduits of xylem dutifully lifting all of it up to the top of the tree to feed the leaves, which fed the flowers, which fed the entire cloud of life buzzing around it.
All the gifts being given in the sky were being born from the all the gifts being taken in the ground. There could be no gifts given above without the gifts taken below.
And with that, I finally would see what was actually happening.
To the acacia, there was no division of “giving” and “taking”. There was only one cohesive and unified action that the tree was alive to serve. The flow in serving the flow out.
For myself, I had mistakenly divided that one perfect and elegant mechanism into two separate actions. Giving and taking. One being right and one being wrong. One being good, and one being bad. One being service and one being selfish.
But now, after three years of that acacia tree patiently and diligently repeating the lesson over and over and over again for me, I had finally gotten it:
To give without being open to receiving is to constrict the flow and therefore to diminish the giving. Being in actuality one singular action, neither will last long without the total freedom of the other.
And so, as a service-minded leader it becomes critical to ask, “What is my receiving action? What are the roots of my tree and what is coming toward me through them? What experiences and nourishment can I draw in, that like the acacia tree, bring me alive inside, and that I might convert into energy and blooms that let me be in greater service to the beings around me?”
In answering these questions, and more importantly acting on them, you may find yourself the leader you always wanted to be:
An acacia tree in full bloom, providing sustenance to a vibrant and buzzing ecosystem of beings. Hovering and dipping. Drinking their fill. From one flower to another. Intent on not one golden well of nectar going unsavored and unemptied.
At that point you will know with certainty that to be in the greatest service to others we must be in great service to ourselves first.
And the most powerful and prolific leadership of others inevitably begins with the leadership of ourselves.