Lt. Col. Jonathan Richards, 39 MDSS: Orange tree leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jonathan Richards
  • 39th Medical Support Squadron commander
I spent months preparing the soil for this tree: routing the irrigation, eliminating all the weeds, laying down weed block, getting the soil pH just right (what a pain!) and aerating the ground so it would be easier for the tree to make new roots.
When I transplanted it, all the leaves turned yellow and fell off. This was one ticked off orange tree. I didn't know that trees got mad, but this one was mad at me for putting it in the ground for sure. This is the worst I have ever seen a tree. My wife wanted me to dig it up or cut it down, but I just couldn't do it.

So we tended to it, fertilized it and let some grass and clovers grow at the roots thinking maybe it was lonely in the stones. It punished our efforts with a sickly, yellow sucker coming up from the root ball - a sign of a tree in stress preparing to let the existing tree die. At this point, it had basically decided to abandon all previous growth and invest its energy into starting over. It was death in slow motion.

This sick, ticked off orange tree reminded me of a lieutenant who had recently joined my flight. I told her all of my previous lieutenants were failures. I tried to explain that only in failure would she really know success. Within the process of failing would be the hidden knowledge of how to push beyond the current limits. She didn't understand and broke down sobbing. She was embarrassed and didn't want to be a failure. She took a week of leave and considered resigning her commission.

It seemed I wasn't a very good gardener or flight commander.

I talked with my wife about the orange tree. I refused to hack it up. I explained that I thought the tree was just in shock. It was a natural thing, it just happened. If we could nurse it back to health, it would be a strong and productive tree. She agreed to try and be patient, but still thought the idea of trying to save the tree was a waste of time and that it was better to move on to another tree.

So we tended to the citrus plant carefully, giving it iron, fertilizer and extra water. A few leaves started to come back after a while, but they remained yellow and sickly and there were definitely no oranges.

After more than two years of nearly leafless branches, one spring we got a burst of flowers. The scent filled the whole corner of the neighborhood. Our daughter could not believe orange blossoms smelled so wonderful. That Christmas, we ate oranges - some of the sweetest we've ever had.

The second photo is the same orange tree four years later. It is healthy, and even though it's small, it produces a bounty of fruit every year. It still has some yellow leaves, but it survives on its own and needs very little water as its roots have spread deep and wide and the growth of desperation at the base is gone.

The moral of this story is also a lesson of leadership. That lieutenant also turned around, and the things I learned from the tree hold true in her situation as well.

You have to prepare the place for those you will lead as best you can, but sometimes your best efforts will fall short. It doesn't matter what you think, say or do if you aren't giving them what they really need in order to grow. Yelling at people doesn't help and explanations don't always provide answers. Consistently giving them time, space and the resources they need is what matters most. You have to care. There is no magic formula.

Even if you do everything right, it still might go bad. Trial and error, patience, observation, reasoning, perseverance, following up, encouragement and pruning (discipline) are the essential skills. Yet, the most valuable thing I learned from my orange tree experience is that the most important trait in leadership is embracing a willingness to fail in order to really succeed.

It's not possible to get it right the first time every time. It turns out you can learn a lot from a tree. While the oranges were sweet, the productive and skilled captain that lieutenant became is far more amazing.

In our Air Force today, we expect a lot of productivity from just a few Airmen. They are busier and harder pressed than ever. Budget cuts, uncertain futures, early retirement and force shaping are just a few of the stressors they now face in addition to the mission at hand. If we expect to get a bounty of high quality work from them, we need to lead them well. We can't give up on them and hack them up at the first sign of failure.

We must ensure the environment around our Airmen is free of negative influences until they become resistant to such influences on their own. We need to start them off right in their initial officer or enlisted basic training, and reinforce those lessons throughout their careers. We must periodically give them a boost of extra-fertile ideas through professional development, and discipline them when they grow awry.

Leadership is straightforward, but that doesn't mean it's easy. The work of leadership is never done, as each new season brings new challenges. In preparing this narrative, it struck me that a majority of the founders of the United States were farmers. Perhaps it's because they learned the valuable lessons of leadership from their fields. I know I learned a lot from my garden's one orange tree ... and the lieutenant, too.