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Nothing grows under the giant banyan tree.” —Indian proverb

banyan tree and limestone waterfalls in purity deep forest use natural background,backdrop

Introduction: When Plants Compete

We don’t think of plants as competitive in the same way as animals or people.  But, it may surprise you that

the quest for scarce, precious resources is just as much a part of the plant kingdom as the animal kingdom.

Plants need access to resources like sunlight, water, air, and nutrients from the soil to survive and thrive.  When the conditions are crowded or the resources scarce (as in arid climates), some plants play a deadly, zero sum game in the quest for limited, precious resources.  These competitive plants protect their space by excreting psytotoxic chemical substances (chemicals that are harmful to other plants).

This chemical process is called allelopathy—from the Greek allelo and pathy, meaning “mutual harm.” The allelopathic plant regulates the reproduction, growth, density and distribution of other plant species, even the plants offspring, by killing off plants attempting to grow around them.  In some cases, the growth of other plants is impaired or prevented for a radius of over ten yards.  In this manner competitors, even the toxic plants own seedlings, are destroyed.  One of the most common allelopathic plants is the pine tree.  Its decomposing needles contain an acid, which penetrates the soil around and under the tree, prohibiting the germination of other plants.  Similarly, large cacti release toxic chemicals in the ground to prevent competitor plants from taking precious water and nutrients from the soil around it.

The Personal Affliction

Much like the alpha leader (and not unlike a cactus),

A finger about to get pricked by a cactus. This picture represents pain, danger and risk.

the toxic leader operates in a world of scarcity.  The emotional necessity of survival is a daily, pressing issue as the toxic leader perceives he or she is in constant danger of lacking scarce, precious resources like power, recognition, affirmation and so on.

This deep and pervading sense of vulnerability leads, predictably, to the hoarding of precious resources—self-preservation breeds self-centeredness.

The Organizational Affliction

The toxic leader afflicts the organization in one, fundamental way:

operating out of their personal affliction, they in turn afflict the organization with a decidedly “leadership unfriendly” ethos of scarcity that undermines the emergence of the next generation of leaders.

Perhaps the best way to identify this affliction is to compare and contrast the toxic leader with his or her healthy counterpart, the generative leader.

Effective top leaders take an approach to organizational life called generativity.  “Generativity versus stagnation” is the seventh and longest of social psychologist Erik Erikson’s eight stages of adult psychosocial development.

Erikson theorized that as healthy adults reached “middle adulthood” they experienced the innate and growing desire to transcend oneself and leave a legacy by contributing to the sustenance and success of the next generation—one must give away to grow. 

Apart from this creative and productive orientation to life, the adult will stop developing and lapse into “a pervading sense of stagnation and personal impoverishment.”  The will to fight against stagnation and instead choose generativity is a normal developmental tension in mid-life adults who recognize their vulnerability to self-centeredness and consciously fight against it by generously giving of their time to teach, nurture an guide the “up and coming.”

Have you seen this play out in your life, or in the life of someone you know?  Check back in our next blog for the summary on “The Toxic Affliction” study.



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