Leadership Found in a Forest of Redwoods and Mistletoe

October 26th, 2018 Allison Benson O' Brien


If you appreciate a conversation based on practical things like data and analysis, that’s a good thing. And that’s why we have experts like Zeno and his colleagues in 14 West Organizational Development. Among other things, they are partnering with business leaders to help them develop and leverage leadership to support real business goals.

But that’s not what this is.

Today I was sitting with one of Zeno’s colleagues, Molly. She was interviewing me to learn more about what I thought leadership looked like at 14 West, and how I thought it could or should evolve and improve. It was a nice conversation. Molly is easy to talk to; she is either exceptionally authentic and dedicated to her work, or she is a fantastic actor. Either way, talking with her got me thinking.

And I couldn’t help but wonder if the key to great leadership was really all that complex.

Before I got back to my desk, I googled “definition of lead.”





1. cause (a person or animal) to go with one by holding them by the hand, a halter, a rope, etc., while moving forward. “you can  lead a horse to water.”

2. be in charge or command of. “we will look to the Chief of Staff to lead this military delegation.”

3. be superior to (competitors or colleagues). “her daughter leads the senior class and has a 4.0 GPA.”

4. have or experience (a particular way of life). “he leads a very active life.”

5. initiate (action in a game or contest), in particular. “he led the first round of gin rummy with three aces.”


I reached my desk, and in my head started ranking the supportive terms above in order of most important to least important.

On a post-it, I wrote, “1, 2, 5, 4, 3.”

I’m not saying my ranking is right for everyone – or right at all, for that matter. But this conversation with myself got more interesting at this point.

I dove deeper into 1.

I tried to picture the people in this organization who have (figuratively) taken me, “by the hand while moving forward.” I envisioned myself walking through a dense forest – trees of every species. There are Cherry Blossoms in full bloom, and Evergreens that would put any Rockefeller Center tree to shame. Redwoods. Trees with Mistletoe. Trees with apples. Trees with vines and monkeys. It’s an odd forest, come to think of it. Fitting for The Agora Companies

My leaders (I report to multiple people) are there ahead of me. They’ve given me the space to breathe but generally kept me close enough to them that they can hear me if I need them. Only on the rare occasion do I need to shout.

Still, they’re keeping their eyes forward. And most importantly, they are moving forward – not standing still, or (worse) standing over me. They look back every now and then to be sure I’m still within reach, and that I am not struggling.

I keep one eye on them, and one on my surroundings. While following them, I’m looking at their stride and being mindful of their pace. I take note of how often they rest, and when they stop to look at something interesting… I do the same. From time to time they let me catch up to them for a casual chat, or they come back and walk by my side. I listen. And eventually they go back to leading, and I go back to following.

But I keep watching and I keep listening.

When they’re not by my side, I can listen to much more. I listen to everything within earshot, and I report back when I hear something that may help us or inspires a new idea about how to get where we’re going. When I hear something that may harm us, I hustle my way up to their side and let them know immediately. And I can always get to them quickly because they haven’t run too far ahead. I like to think this means they need me.

I’ve walked for almost seven years now in this strange forest. Sometimes it feels as though I’ve covered 10 years’ worth of ground. Looking back, I’ve had to run quite a lot… jump and leap, too. I’ve carried more than I should have, gotten distracted by the birds, tripped and fallen. And other times, it feels as though I’m still just starting out. Those are the best times.

Now, there are 6 people following me. And every so often, the people who have led me ask that I walk ahead. I try to be a lot like the people I follow but in my own way. Sometimes I want to ask them, “why?” Why do they trust me to lead them? Maybe the fear of their response keeps me from actually asking. Maybe I’m a coward. Or maybe that fear is enough to keep me moving. I really don’t know. Maybe this really is “all that complex.”

What I do know is that on this long walk through a strange forest I’ve found my leadership style, and in many respects have found myself.


Allison Benson O' Brien

Director of Communications at 14 West

“Ask “why?” when told “no.” Always learn something. And stand behind the ideas you believe in.”

My job allows me a lot of creative freedom. And that can be a lot of fun, but there’s also some self-inflicted pressure that comes along with the role. Fortunately, my team includes some brilliant people and a few clowns; so we not only get the job done – we laugh every day. And I think our work is stronger because of that. We take the positivity, the humor and the passion we have in our office and find a way to share it with the workplaces we support. Whether it’s through an event, a marketing piece, a partnership, a post… even a piece of swag. And it works.
My team and I have watched the companies we support to go on to become recognized as top workplaces by their communities and local media. It feels good to know that this is in part due to our efforts.

What is your favorite company event of the year? Hands down… decorating day. We pull the holiday decorations out of the basement, get together after work with some pizza, wine, and music, and decorate the gorgeous 19th Century mansion we work in. A dream for a Christmas geek like myself.