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Sunday, February 5, 2023

Leading with Character: Character of a Different Kind

Gale force winter winds had ripped off parts of her crown and lightening had rent her thick bark, shearing off limbs. But those wounds served a purpose.

Today is the last day of my summer vacation in the lake region of Maine. As I sallied forth on my morning walk up McWain Hill Road in Waterford, the early morning sunbeams bathed the bucolic countryside, awakening the sleepy white farm buildings. I waxed nostalgic at the thought of leaving all this and returning to the hustle-bustle of daily life.

I love trees. Here, they line the road and surround the farm houses, spreading their branches to provide shade and shelter. As I walked, I passed a tall, majestic elm that somehow escaped the devastating Dutch elm disease. Then a stately fir, a mighty oak, a fruitful hickory. But there next to a newly-hayed field stood the most magnificent of them all: the mother tree. An ancient sugar maple. She was not stately or majestic; she was worn and torn from years of giving and taking. But she had something the other trees didn’t: character.

The Mother Tree

Well over 100 years ago a seed fell, mingling with the field stones of the jumbled wall that was probably built about the same time, as farmers cleared the land. She grew amidst the stones, her roots feeling their way around the obstacles and using them to strengthen her grip in the soil. She would need that firm foundation to withstand the onslaught from the forces of nature that would batter her over the years.

She stood halfway up the hill, and had endured a lifetime of hardship. She was rough and ragged. Gale force winter winds had ripped off parts of her crown and lightening had rent her thick bark, shearing off limbs. But those wounds served a purpose, nurturing a support system for birds and small mammals that made homes in the holes and cavities. In turn, woodpeckers removed bugs from her bark, helping her remain healthy.

Sap freely flowed when she was tapped for maple syrup, and she drew deep from the Earth to restore her reserves. She shared those nutrients through interlocking roots with the younger trees around her, strengthening the community for the good of all, and ensuring the survival of her own offspring. This time of year, she drops the wing-shaped seed pods that will spin to the ground and help red squirrels and other animals survive the harsh winter.

What Trees Can Teach Us About Character

Like the mother tree, leaders of character have persevered through hardships, navigating the obstacles encountered in uncharted waters. They’ve built character by weathering the storms of life, learning from their hardships and failures. Like the mother tree wraps her roots around the stones in the old stone wall, leaders of character root themselves in their core values. They give of themselves to mentor the younger generation who will replace them one day.

Leaders of character are shaped by their experiences, both good and bad. They become stronger over time, as they put down roots that will hold firm regardless of the forces that try to bend and break them.

Look in the mirror. What does being a leader of character mean to you?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

Sandra L. Stosz
Vice Admiral Stosz, a Homeland Security Today editorial board member, started out in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign serving on polar icebreakers, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her 40-year career is filled with leadership lessons gleaned while breaking ice and breaking glass as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. She finished her career as the first woman assigned as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, directing one of the Coast Guard’s largest enterprises. She has lectured widely on leadership, and has been featured on CSPAN and other media outlets. In 2012, Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” named Vice Admiral Stosz to their list of 150 Women who Shake the World. Proceeds from “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” will be donated to the US Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership.

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