On Leadership: Banana Trees and Mango Trees

Mango tree

“I’m still working at the same place” says my friend.

“How is that going?” I say.

We were reconnecting after 7 years of not seeing each other.

This friend is a dear friend who knows well what it is to live between worlds.
“It’s fine – but there is no place to grow.” She went on to explain that the top positions were taken and every time there might be a chance to grow into a position it was quickly squashed. She was discouraged.

She knew she had leadership gifts, leadership qualities but there was no opportunity to use these. 

It made me think about leadership, specifically types of leaders.

Years ago I remember talking to my mom about leadership. She had once heard an illustration about leadership using the analogy of trees: a banana tree and a mango tree. Banana trees are little, they don’t grow into mighty trees that dominate an orchard, or a forest, or even a yard.They are small but they reproduce in amazing ways. Everywhere you have a banana tree, another banana tree will spring up, and then another, and another. Banana trees reproduce until you have a whole bunch of trees all producing sweet, beautiful bananas.

Mango trees are opposite. They are mighty and beautiful, they are tall and tower over other trees. And they produce amazing fruit – the fruit of a mango is delicious. But hear this – nothing can grow under them. The ground under them cannot sustain another tree. The mango tree is too large, too strong, too overpowering.

And so it is with leadership. There are those leaders who are like banana trees: everywhere they go they replicate. They mentor others so that others can exercise their leadership abilities and their gifts, they open up the conversation for others to join and give their opinion, they are in the business of growing leaders. And there are leaders like the mango tree – they serve a great purpose, they are strong and persuasive, but others can’t grow as leaders under them.

There is a place for the mango tree leader. Any crisis initially needs a mango tree, someone who stands strong and decisive, keeping people safe and secure. Surgery, law, humanitarian disasters – the mango leader is critical to some of these situations.

But there is a place where mango trees need to make way for banana trees to lead; a place where leaders can confidently and humbly build up leaders, and they in turn can build up more leaders.

A good leader will be thrilled when those under them display leadership skills – it won’t be about competition, it will be about replication. A banana tree leader knows that sustainability comes by ensuring others are well chosen and well trained, able to continue the good work that has been started.

Join the conversation – what do you think of this analogy? Does it resonate? Have you known both types of leaders?