The Farmer and the Hollow Tree

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jason Burch
  • 13th Space Warning Squadron commander
I keep nearby a book titled Lincoln on Leadership, by Donald T. Phillips. In the book, the author relates how President Lincoln used several anecdotes to inspire his listeners, from department secretaries and generals, to soldiers and cabinet members. Over a hundred and fifty years later his stories continue to provide today's readers lessons on leadership. As a commander, one such story in the book resonates with me more than all others, the story of the farmer and the hollow tree:

After receiving news from his cabinet that many people believed to be Union patriots were in fact spies for the Confederacy President Lincoln, very upset with the disturbing news, decided to "expressed his feelings with a story about the dilemma of an old farmer who had a very large shade tree towering over his house: It was a majestic-looking tree, and apparently perfect in every part--tall, straight, and of immense size--the grand old sentinel of his forest home.

One morning, while at work in his garden, he saw a squirrel run up the tree into a hole and thought the tree might be hollow. He proceeded to examine it carefully and, much to his surprise, he found that the stately tree that he had valued for its beauty and grandeur to be the pride and protection of his little farm was hollow from top to bottom. Only a rim of sound wood remained, barely sufficient to support its weight. What was he to do? If he cut it down, it would do great damage with its great length and spreading branches. If he let remain, his family was in constant danger. In a storm it might fall, or the wind might blow it down, and his house and children be crushed by it. What should he do? As he turned away, he said sadly: "I wish I had never seen that squirrel."

President Lincoln's story is a reminder to leaders of all ranks, both military and civilian, when discovering an issue within their organization, no matter how great the challenge, to not turn away from it like Lincoln's "farmer", but instead face the challenge head on. Moreover, IAW AFI 1-2 Commander's Responsibilities, a commander is charged with the responsibility to execute the mission, lead people, manage resources and improve the unit. The commander leads by example and does not have the luxury of letting someone else do it. If the commander is aware of a problem, under lawful authority and responsibility vested in command, they must act. The Air Force core values and the propensity to act is what is expected of today's leaders.