The Work We Do

Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

Max DePree, former CEO of Herman Miller, ends his book, Leadership Jazz, The Essential Elements of a Great Leader, with this story:

“In the late fourteenth century, the members of New College, at Oxford, moved into their quzdrangle, the first structure of its kind, intended to provide for the residents all that they needed. On the north side of the quadrangle sit the chapel and the great hall, beautiful buildings, and as you might imagine, the focus of the life of the college.

“In the middle of the nineteenth century, almost five hundred years later, the college hired architect Sir Gilbert Scott to restore the roof of the hall. The roof and that great oak beams that supported it had badly rotted.  And so representatives from the college with Sir Gilbert visited Great Hall Woods, in Berkshire, where they expected to find trees for replacement beams. Sure enough, the replacements were standing there, waiting to be hewn out of the living oak trees planted a century before just for that purpose.”

It’s not too surprising to know that this story “is a blend of myth and reality. While the College, in keeping with standard woodland practices in Britain, has always kept groves of oaks intended for construction purposes, it isn’t clear that any particular set of trees was officially designated to replace the beams of the College dining hall.”  It is, though, a wonderful story about thinking ahead and understanding that the results of today’s work will only be realized in the future.

My dad was a tree planter. He loved pecans and he was willing to sit and shell them by the bucket load to be certain there are enough pecans for whatever baking project needed them. In most of the places he and my mom lived, he planted pecan trees. However, it takes awhile for a pecan tree to mature enough for the tree to bear fruit, and in every case we moved before my dad had a chance to shell any pecans from his own trees. But thanks to him – in different backyards in Oklahoma City – there is the possibility of huge pecan trees dropping pecans for other people to enjoy because my father was willing to plant a pecan tree in the hope of one day shelling his own pecans.

As I watch the trees in our neighborhood leaf out this spring, I’m reminded again, that the act of planting a tree is a promise to the future. Whether one is hoping for fruit, shade, or something to climb, it takes a while for a tree to realize its potential. Planting a tree is both a literal act of making the world a better place and a symbolic act of hope for the future. So is working in an organization. Day-by-day, as we support each other in the work we do, we create opportunities for our colleagues and the people we serve to learn and grow through the work we do. We are also believing in their futures. Our work, like planting a tree, is both immediate and future oriented.

Even if we never see the results of our work, the effort still matters. The promise of making a difference matters. Whether or not we are there to see it, the tree is ready to support a building or the pecans are there to be harvested, the person benefits tomorrow from their hard work today. This year as we’ve all been working from separate spaces scattered across our community, it may be more important than ever to remember that we don’t always know what we have accomplished or what good we have done. We don’t know who we have helped or what lessons we are currently learning, but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t important. The future is always built on the work of today even when it’s all done on Zoom.

Take care,


Leave a Comment