Nature Agrees. Shyness Has its Benefits.

During a recent car ride, one of my sons was telling me about the natural phenomenon, canopy shyness.  I had never heard the term before, but it got my attention because I’ve just started a company that helps shy executives shine in their work.  Maybe nature could teach me something about leadership communication.  

Canopy shyness refers to treetops that get close to each other in the canopy of a forest, but don’t actually touch.  The phenomenon can be quite striking, with treetops forming virtual puzzle pieces that come right up to each other, but don’t touch or overlap.

Botanists have a few different explanations for canopy shyness.  One has to do with mutual light sensing by plants, where buds at the end of branches sense shade from another branch or leaf and stop growing in the direction of the shade.  Another explanation is that this separation between treetops helps trees reduce the spread of parasites or harmful insects, thus increasing the trees’ resistance to disease and improving their chances for survival.

Whatever the explanation, canopy shyness leads to some cool looking forests.  But since I’m not an arborist and have never played one on TV (I auditioned but didn’t get the part), I started to consider canopy shyness in the context of my work.  Here are some thoughts in progress:

Become a better collaborator so you’ll become a better competitor.

Like nature, business can be fiercely competitive.  The language of business speaks to this.  Eat what you kill.  Survival of the fittest.  Only the strong survive. It’s not good or bad, per se.  It’s just reality.

But within the live-or-die competition of nature, canopy shyness reminds us that survival requires collaboration and adaptation, too.  Same in business.  There’s room for natural collaborators, who are often more sensitive, quiet and reserved.  You need them to balance out the invasive species, turf gobblers and space invaders, including the new marketing guy down the hall.

Look for negative space, find beauty.

In the art world, “negative space” refers to the space in between or surrounding objects.  It is negative space that makes canopy shyness such a remarkable thing to behold.  It’s what allows us to perceive the shapes of the treetops.  Said another way, it’s the absence of something that allows us to appreciate the “something” in the first place.

What does this mean for your organization? On your team, do you have table setters and space makers?  People who are willing to create the conditions or the tableau for others to do something beautiful?   Sometimes you need people who are willing to hold back so that we can see and appreciate the contributions of others.  

Celebrate the positive achievements on your team, absolutely.  But also celebrate the negative space makers, whose main contribution is making it possible for others to contribute.  They’re rare in business, worth their weight in gold.

It's lonely at the top, and that's not all bad.

For the most part, leaders need more connection to other leaders.  From my personal experience as a business runner, I could have been more effective and enjoyed my work more if I connected and compared notes with other leaders more often.

But some separation at the top seems unavoidable.  You get rained on first, but you also get the most sunshine and the best views.

Sensing is underrated in business.

What’s the human equivalent to the photo receptors in the leaves of trees?  I’m not sure.  Maybe emotional intelligence or keen perceptiveness.  I do know this. When it comes to business communication, we spend too much time celebrating signal senders, rather than signal receivers.  

Dialogues beat monologues and in order to engage in constructive dialogue you have to been willing to read a room and pick up the many signals being offered to you.  Too many “great” communicators in business get their rave reviews for being confident orators.  That's awesome, but there's more to communication than speaking.  Many confident speakers struggle to listen and pick up cues from their audiences. They’re convinced that their signals are the only ones that matter.

We have the tools to be more sensitive to what’s happening around us in our work.  Being sensitive doesn’t mean you’re weak or powerless, it means you’re making the most of all the available information around you to plot your course and make your choices.  

Lastly, as we ponder nature's leadership lessons, don't throw shade.  There’s enough light for all of us if we work together.


tom yorton