The Old Orange Tree

A recent coaching assignment highlighted a recurrent problem leaders sometimes face with a dissident member of their team. My client had a team member who wasn’t quite aligned with her or the other team members and had become a difficult and growing problem. She had almost concluded that the best way forward would be to end her own frustrations by removing this increasingly nonconforming member from the team. Another client had once told me this true and personal story … I shared it with her, just as he had told it to me, hoping it might help her decide:

“We have a beautiful summer home in Spain where, as a family, we can retreat completely from the pressures of work and city life; taking ‘time-out’ just to rest, to talk, to share, to laugh … and to belong. During our first summer down there, mornings and early evenings became a special and private time for me … quiet moments, just to read or to think and reflect. True, that even now, I may still check my emails, but that’s fine ... It gives me that peace of mind, just by staying loosely ‘connected’ yet intimately 'detached' from the office. The morning cappuccino would last longer and taste better – the evening glass of wine as the sun descended, lingered longer too and stayed sweeter on the lips.

As the winter months went by and our second summer beckoned, the garden had begun to take real shape and colour; with a new and burgeoning persona all of its own … of life, regeneration and growth that in some way seemed to reflect my own serendipity and I would sit, cup or glass in hand, surveying this scene with growing pride and admiration for the loving touches both my wife’s hands and mine had added to make the garden such a joy to our senses of sight, sound, touch and taste. The gentle old Spanish gardener we’d engaged to restore the garden during those first winter months, too, had worked his magic.

Yet … down by a favoured spot, in a far corner of this cornucopia of colour, my eyes were ever averted towards an old sickly, withering orange tree. As tall as me, yet tired and weakened by years of neglect. Almost moribund, it seemed to just barely exist; desperately clinging to life as if only to annoy and spoil our perfect panorama – to remind us, perhaps, that not everything in the garden is ever or always rosy. The old Spaniard couldn’t remember when it had last borne fruit; the sweet, delicious oranges of its youthful bounty belonged to summers long since passed. Amidst this vibrant sea of colour and vitality, it no longer seemed to belong there ... a blight even, on an otherwise perfect landscape.

One morning, as I sat there, the old gardener quietly asked once again … “Shall I take it out senor … that old orange tree? We can plant something young and new in its place. It will only take an hour to dig out and burn.” But as he walked towards it, something inside bade me call the old man back. “It’s still alive … it’s still an orange tree.” I told him. Once, it must have borne many fruits … stood out even – amidst its smaller, perennial neighbours, with its own spring blossoms and summer oranges contrasted against the blues of the Spanish sea and sky. “It must be us”, I said … “Something we do or don’t do that is causing it to wither and fail. Let us see what we can do. Let’s try and help it, if we can.”

Over those following days, under a searing Spanish sun, we dug out the barren soil around the old tree’s twisted trunk; digging deeply in and around its knarled roots to expose its very foundations; carefully propping it up against the evening’s sea breezes whilst we removed the frail, parched earth and rubble among which its roots had fought so hard to survive. We treated the bark, trimmed back its wilder branches, shook off its thirsting, dying leaves and poured ‘bag after bag’ of the finest soil and compost around the orange tree’s roots. We gave it water … so much water; the very ‘staff of life’. I even recalled a rusty old sign outside a dilapidated NGO office in Malawi that I’d seen as a young man. It had read …“For all his greatness, his achievements, his pride and his vanities. Mankind still owes his very existence to just four inches of top-soil and the fact that it rains.”

Then we watched …and we waited. Waited and watered - again and again. But nothing really changed that summer; except that the rest of the garden continued to flourish, just as did we. As our summer sojourn ended and we embarked on our return to the city, a glancing look towards that incongruous far corner … and a final thought as I left our otherwise perfect place in the sun, that “at least we tried” were my last reflections as I slowly but surely switched back to ‘work mode’ on the short flight home.

That was three years ago now … this summer just past. In our wonderful Spanish garden, the colours and the scents are brighter and more fragrant than ever before. The morning birdsong and their evening chatter even louder. The cappuccinos and the wine are as special as they’ve always been. So too, at breakfast time - the freshest and sweetest orange juice we’ve ever tasted. Deep in the garden, down by that favoured spot, there’s a new and rampant shade of green and orange ... an abundance of fruit we still can’t quite believe. Colours so strong and so beautiful, that the old orange tree seems to lead the whole garden from winter to spring, from spring to summer and onto those many shades of autumn gold. It reminds me, as ever it should, of that one moment’s choice I made … to ‘stick with it’ … to try just one more time, where others may have given up and failed.

Just like the old orange tree … people shine in the light of our attention.”

George Telfer.


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