Are you climbing a ladder or a tree?

By 16th April 2019 No Comments

Have you heard about the research that says men regard their careers as climbing up a ladder, whilst women regard their career as a tree, with branches extending in various directions? So claims Dr Sam Collins of Aspire. But if that’s the case, let’s just consider for a moment the difference between an organisation that is full of ladders and one that is full of trees.

Personal stability and security

Ladders are inherently unstable. To climb any height you have to rest them against something else. And if you want to get to the top then it helps to have somebody holding onto the bottom.

Trees are inherently stable. They are self-supporting through an extensive root system. Nobody else has to hold them or support them. They have their own secure base.

Looking around at the number of people with mental health issues, or struggling with stress and burnout I wonder how many have really secure bases? Is the plethora of mental health issues now affecting our young people possibly due to having to grow up too quickly, so they don’t have the opportunity to grow that secure root system? After all, if you force a plant to grow too quickly it is unlikely to be as strong as one that has taken years to mature. Secure bases don’t form overnight. They need nurturing and time. Developing our sense of inner self-worth and security is fundamental to our ability to go out there and hold ourselves up in the world. Like a tree needs its roots to stand tall and proud in the wood.

Egosystem versus ecosystem

Otto Scharmer talks about the difference between ego-system awareness and eco-system awareness. Ego-system awareness is me-centric thinking and focuses on maximising self-interest. Climbing the ladder is an ego-system approach. Eco-system awareness on the other hand values the well-being of others and the well-being of the whole. Trees form an eco-system. In a wood they mutually support and protect one another. They also provide resources for other diverse forms of life. Our whole planet depends on trees, be it for fossil fuels, firewood, timber, absorbing CO2, or the vast range of plants, some medicinal that our forests provide. This does not mean that trees don’t compete. Only the strongest saplings survive to maturity. But there is a sense of trees working together.


Woods are diverse places. Trees come in all different shapes and forms. Each one makes a unique contribution to our woodland landscape and is valued for different reasons. Ladders tend to follow the same format. They have to conform. So a room full of ladders all looks the same. That means ladders are stuck with the same perspective and the same thinking. Trees bring different approaches and different strategies. Yet they can live alongside each other quite happily and contribute to the overall eco-system in different ways. Is it not time we encouraged this type of diversity in our workplaces?

No tree is better than another tree

Many people regard the oak as the king of the forest. They certainly grow to be big trees and they take up more water than other species. But each tree only takes what it needs. It doesn’t hoard resources that it doesn’t need. And if one tree does get out of hand nature will step in and keep it in check. Because nature understands the importance of balance. Sustainability is all about give and take. Is what we give back to the system in balance with what we take from it? Trees ultimately die and still provide resources for the forest. This sense of balance is essential to any eco-system. Without it the system will eventually fall apart.

Are you for a ladder or a tree?

So what would you rather be climbing? Are you set on mounting a ladder, with a clear goal at the top, that is about you and you alone? Or are you more interested in growing a tree, that can grow and nurture others as well as yourself and provide a more balanced and stable life path? I don’t believe that this is a gender decision, based on whether you are male or female. The choice is yours.


Author Janet Curran

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