What we can learn from acorns...
Most people, when shown an acorn, see an acorn. President Harry Truman was fond of a lesson from that fact. He knew that when shown an acorn, very, very few people can see the tree -- the massive tree that grows from that one humble seed.
It has to do with vision. Not just physical vision, but far-sighted mental vision, the kind that connects the dots between events and consequences, the kind needed for effective leadership. To visualize the tree from the seed first requires relevant experience and education. A child who never takes a walk in the woods or is never shown a seed will be missing a strong object lesson. But the connection between the two needs to be grasped, just like the elementary principles of simple math, for logical reasoning to develop.
To lead with vision requires humility to listen for more information, wisdom to make the right decisions, and the courage to carry them out, because the right decisions are always opposed by someone. Always. Usually the opposition comes from those lacking the ability to grasp the negative consequences of ideas that may otherwise “sound good”.
There are consequences for all actions, just like for planting acorns. Parents have an enormous responsibility in teaching that process, and it begins with small actions.
Teach them about the tree!
When a child is taught not to run into a street or never to stick little fingers into electrical outlets, he or she has no idea of the dangers involved. Not at first. The child does not know about the “tree”. If he’s stubborn, rebellious, or just plain not listening, he may learn a lesson the hard way.
The first exposure to cause and effect is planted by parents. Since children have short attention spans, correction needs to be timely to be memorable. Delayed corrections may have no effect at all. Any ounce of prevention can be invaluable. Someone needs to be present when the lesson is needed.
The human brain does not begin to seriously question it’s “ideas” (whether to carry them out or not) until age 25, when maturity sets in, or should.
It is no wonder that without vision, young people are particularly at risk for making mistakes.
Some people are born with the ability to see the tree and others are not. That’s OK. It’s not a negative, just a difference, something to be understood and accepted. Those who lack vision have other gifts, but should learn to defer to the visionaries for guidance, especially in times of crisis when rapid decisions need to be made. The first visionaries in a child’s life are his or her parents, where leadership is first taught by example. Respect should be a natural outgrowth of that process, as good results are witnessed.
Those with limited long-term vision capabilities are not good candidates for all levels of leadership. What matters is that they work at a level where they can excel. Leading a sports team or running a shop is not the same as leading a nation. Different levels of experience and education are needed where risks are increased. The more visionary a leader is, the more courage they need to act when opposition arises. Bad decisions can be made by anyone, for various reasons, but for lack of vision the worst ones often result.
A Real-Life “Acorn” Example
Sad case in point. Recently horrific fires devoured parts of California. The losses and heartbreaks are beyond measure. Many acknowledge that poor long-term decisions have contributed to, if not directly caused, the jeopardy created by unmanaged forests. There were also long-term decisions made with regards to water management which greatly limited fire-fighting capabilities. Waters which could have been stored were allowed to dump into the Bay and the ocean to protect a tiny breed of fish.
I lived in California during most of my junior and high school years, and have an “acorn” story to tell which illustrates the point.
The community where my family resided was in Marin County. We were surrounded by hills, lush with green grasses in the spring which turned California gold in summer. The primary trees were oaks, some of them hundreds of years old, dotting the hills here and there and forming pleasant groves along the ravines and crests of the hills. For decades that valley had also been grazing land for cattle. The cows came and went, with plenty of grass to consume, causing no problems whatsoever. Their grazing kept the grass short and tidy, allowing it to stay green longer even without rain, as the fog and morning dews sufficed to keep it growing. Plus they fertilized as they traveled. Grazing herds improve soil quality overall, allowing it to retain more water.
As turnover occurred with the residents of that valley, eventually some people decided the cows were “not natural”, possibly interfering with forage for wildlife, and maybe transplanted urbanites also considered the livestock an eyesore. Perhaps some were afraid to hike up there for fear of cows. Who knows? A petition to ban the presence of cattle on the visible side of the hills was filed and won. Most residents never knew about it. It’s possible none would have bothered to oppose.
So the next Spring the grass grew. And it grew and grew until it was very tall and no one dared hike up there because of the unpleasantness. The higher the grass, the higher the jumping off point for ticks and other vermin. It wasn’t good for hikers, and dogs would come back infested. The view was marred, and instead of a parklike setting the area was a mess.
When a fire spontaneously ignited, late that summer, there was nothing to deter the flames. Thankfully weather allowed it to be contained before it spread over more parts of the County. For at least two days no one got any sleep, all on the verge of evacuation. Some houses burned.
Could this have been prevented? Obviously so.
During the same years, deer-hunting was also banned. Another short-sighted decision. Poor little deer. Over-protected Bambi grew in numbers until the herds became severely diseased. Their natural predators had also been banned. Eventually the authorities had to organize volunteer hunters to shoot as many as they could to keep the deer from starving and dying from their sad conditions. It was a man-made disaster, cloaked as misguided kindness. Another bad “acorn” decision.
To any far-sighted acorn-to-oak-tree thinking person, the initial petitions to bar grazing cattle as well as the managed hunting of deer bore predictable consequences. One is left to ponder if any rationale was offered to those seeking those petitions, to educate and inform why they might not be a good idea? They only saw as far as they could see, which wasn’t far enough, much of it guided by feelings instead of wisdom.
Can We See the Tree?
Ultimately, President Truman was the leader to whom it fell to make the decision to end World War II. He saved an estimated 3 million lives by deciding to end the war at the sacrifice of a comparably much smaller number. He had to see the tree beyond the acorn in deciding to drop the first nuclear bombs. Without his action millions would have perished in an unfinished war. Most of the lives saved were Japanese. Due to their high sense of honor it was known the Japanese would have fought and died to the last man, and that was part of the equation involved in the decision. Allied casualties would have been in the hundreds of thousands (possibly up to 750,000).
Harry Truman was a humble man who never sought the Presidency but had distinguished himself for his integrity and willingness to tackle corruption at other levels of government.
It is said that the best way to study history is through the eyes and experiences of those who lived it. And that is asolutely true. Without an understanding of history it's not possible to develop vision for the future. Biographies are invaluable and a great replacement for the drier studies of history that grant no insights into why and how decisions were made.
By age twelve young Truman’s wisdom was sought out by his relatives due to his deep studies and understanding of scripture. There is much about “vision” contained in those words, some about good decisions, and a lot about the bad ones. There’s also much to study about courage and integrity. Applying all of those, as Truman went from rustic farming to fighting corruption in labor unions, he wound up as Senator from Missouri. He had no desire to move beyond that post, but fate had other plans.
To lead at any level requires far-sighted vision, selflessness and courage. Those with their eyes only on acorns, without focus on the long-term results of their actions, may be temporarily satisfied with short-term results, but in the end, there will be no lasting tree.
We can certainly help children study the simple lessons from acorns. Every small experience in their lives counts. Hopefully they can learn to plant good trees throughout their lives. All can turn out to be leaders no matter what they do in life. First they need to learn to lead themselves.
All Photos Dreamstime Stock Photos.
[Recommended reading: “Harry S. Truman” by Margaret Truman; William Morrow & Company, Inc. New York, 1973]