Byron's Babbles

Plum Crazy Leadership

What would happen in our busy corporate world if we had more opportunities to allow wisdom to emerge instead of either believing we have to already know everything and convince others we do, or controlling the atmosphere of our corporate cultures so we can be more productive? We can do this! In a recount of his journey through corporate life at Hallmark, Gordon McKenzie introduced a timeless analogy about plum trees and pyramids. The book is Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace.

He reminded us that most organizational charts look like a pyramid. He also reminded us that the pyramids are tombs. That’s a pretty huge reminder. Important people at the top and the not so important at the bottom. A reminder of this is when organizations say they want leadership from everyone and then create “leadership teams.” I thought everyone was a leader and the whole organization was a team. These types also always want to call themselves a family when really… People don’t stay in these organizations very long because they don’t want to get crushed and entombed by the pyramid.

MacKenzie argued that great organizations were like plum trees. Great metaphor because for one thing, a plum tree is a living thing. The plums are the products or services and the branches are all the teams. The leaves (I added this part) are the people who make it all happen and keep the organization thriving and alive – just like leaves do photosynthesis. Then, the trunk supports the whole tree. Novel idea, right? Actual it’s a plum great idea! See what I did there?

MacKenzie also taught us to practice what he called “compassionate emptiness”. Compassionate emptiness is a state of nonjudgmental listening and receiving of others’ ideas, thoughts, opinions, burdens, and worries. I’ve only met a few who were truly masters at this. Fortunately, I got to work for one of the few very early in my teaching career and I believe it helped to shape me into who I am today. To practice compassionate emptiness takes courage. There are boundaries to cross, impasse to acknowledge, and the admission of idiocy.

Unlike the pyramid, the plum tree is a living organism. It is flexible and can adjust with the times. In the plum tree, the service providers, talent, and product producers make up the top of the tree. They have sunshine, they have air, and they can see from their vantage point. They produce the fruit (cash crop). The plum tree can create opportunity through support of those that are closer to the solutions. Note this is intent based leadership – those closest to where the data is created should be making the decisions. So, it’s not plum crazy to wonder why more organizations don’t operate more like a plum tree.


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