What trees can teach you about being a successful change agent

On his blog @herdmeister Mark Earls has an interesting piece about the connected life of networked trees in relation to our connected lives. Much of the story is explained in the video above.

Apparently these trees form large connected networks with their roots. The bigger trees play the role of hubs spreading nutrients through the system to other smaller trees who can enhance their chances for survival by tapping into this network and by adding value themselves.

This video actually tells us a lot about being a successful change-agent, which is: are you able to validate the connections you and others have, and can you add value to your relationships and those of others?

According to herdmeister Mark Earls we tend to leave out one of the most important factor that influences our behavior, namely ‘other people’.

“Much of cognitive psychology (and it’s fair to say, much of the Nudge-gang’s work) remains rooted in understanding the quirks of individuals’ cognitive machinery; much of evolutionary psychology seems to be stuck in explaining the behaviour of individuals devoid of their real context – that is, other people.” (Mark Earls, ‘One Tree Stands Alone in the Forest?‘)

When I work with clients who are trying to influence others through change campaigns, we often start with a very individualistic notion of control. It seems like we have to come up with a solution to make it all happen and to gain control about (at least) a part of the network we are working with.

This is a flawed approach, at least for six reasons.

  1. It fails to take into account the ‘real context’ as Earls calls it, namely other people having a continuous impact upon those we are ‘designing’ change campaigns for.
  2. It fails to attribute sufficient weight to the role contextual factors in general play in why people act the way they do.
  3. It fails to understand the rather oblique nature of complex processes in nature (rephrased by John Kay as ‘our goals are best achieved without intending them’ or the shortest route to a goal is not always a straight line) and our misplaced tendency to think we can plan the whole outcome in advance.
  4. It fails to recognize that our maps of reality are not the same as the territory, let alone a comprehensive map of other people’s maps of that same reality.
  5. It overemphasizes our individual role we play as ‘change-agents’ in influencing the choices of those we tend to change.
  6. It keeps us from understanding how we can really add value and make a difference in other people’s lives, and thus make a difference that makes a difference (dixit Gregory Bateson).

Even in a complex project such as influencing the behavior of large groups you can do a fairly simple thing to change people’s lives. That is not by ‘using’ people to co-construct your image of a future perfect world. It is far more simpler than that.

You can always add value to other people’s lives by genuinely caring about your relationships with them and about theirs with others around them. And with others I mean more than just people.

Being a successful change-agent is not about being some kind of mastermind architect or some supreme Neo-like hacker of Life’s Wonderful Mainframe. It is about being a person who cares enough about others to do what it takes to improve their relationships, their connections with the world.

There is something really wrong with the word change-agent in itself, even with the word leader – which is often associated with it. And that is that it implies that you show the way, that you pave the way and that you drag others along.

Not. Well, not exactly.

In order to add quality to your relationships and to those of others, you have to care first, which means paying attention to what makes our lives worth living.

You are a master-follower.

And through that particular kind of attention, through this kind of genuine care, you actually do pave the way for others, but rather in master-followership than in master-leadership.

If you think about it you understand that great marketing, but also any other great service in any kind of field (education, psychology, health, finance, …) is actually about master-followership resulting in adding some meaningful quality to the relationships people are having, with other people, with their bodies, with the things around them, and so on.

The beauty of all of this is that in order to add something meaningful to your relationship with other people and to theirs with others, you do not need big inventions or huge amounts of money.

Genuine attention is an almost inexhaustible and very inexpensive resource. You can spend it anytime you want almost as often as you like. Yet the difference it makes is immense.

Want a more tangible form of this kind of attention? Ask a question. One like: “How did you manage to do that?”

And really listen to the answer.

Ask another question and watch the other person grow.

Want to train your master-followership skills? Sign-up for ‘Destination Change’. More info on this page.

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2 thoughts on “What trees can teach you about being a successful change agent

  1. Such a powerful, wise story in Suzanne Sinnard’s video about Mother Trees. Thank you for including this in your blog. And for the points you make about being a master-follower and paying genuine attention after asking an open-ended question.

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