Leadership Spotlight

The Carver and the Planter

A man walks on a path in the woods.


Have you ever walked on a winding trail through a forest? The respite these trails provide gives leaders a chance to reflect, recharge, and reassess priorities. Recently during one of these walks through the woods, a common sight appeared—one that all of us have seen at some point. On the trunk of a majestic pine tree, someone had carved out a heart with two names in the middle. In that moment, a leadership question formed. As leaders, should we be more interested in making a mark or creating sustainable leadership?

Some people would argue that making a mark is a form of sustainable leadership. A portion of that statement probably holds true. However, upon further inspection of the tree, you see a significant cost associated with the act of leaving one’s mark: The etching ripped off a large chunk of the tree bark. A deliberate act put the tree’s survival in jeopardy. Does a leader’s need to leave a name or mark outweigh the long-term consequences of such an action?

What if we compared the carving of the tree with another ritual? For instance, some newly married couples symbolically plant a tree to have it grow along with their union. If we contrasted both actions from a leader’s point of view, what would we find? 

The FBI Academy has a tree that students see as they go outside to exercise. In 1991 four signs hung from the tree and served as sentinels. The words “hurt,” “agony,” “pain,” and “love it” reminded all of us that if we were to be leaders, we needed to make personal sacrifices. Today, that same tree has six additional signs nailed into its trunk.

While the people who hammered the newer signs into the tree had good intentions, closer inspection reveals signatures or class markings inscribed on the backs of some signs. Taking pride in an accomplishment certainly should not bring shame to a leader, but the next time you take a walk in the woods or take a moment to self-assess, ask yourself how you measure your leadership. Is it important for your organization and your followers to specifically remember your name, or is it better to remain unnoticed but never forgotten through the caring lessons you taught the future leaders of your organization?

Therein lies the difference between the carver and the planter. Sometimes the best leaders quietly go about their day planting seeds and watching their trees grow over time. As these new trees grow, they drop seeds, and new generations of trees sprout anew in a continually renewable cycle. In this manner leaders who carve their mark into trees disappear into oblivion when the trees die or heal, while leaders who sow the fields enjoy eternal life.

Supervisory Special Agent M. Bret Hood, an instructor in the Leadership and Communications Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.