Plants are and have always been extremely important for human kind survival on this Planet. We all know they produce the oxygen we breathe, but most importantly, their physiological structure and behaviors could teach us a lot about how to survive and thrive in the globalized interconnected and interdependent community we have only recently created. Plants behaviors? Yes, it was not a mistake, with my great surprise few years back I had the opportunity to meet Professor Stefano Mancuso, one of the leading world researcher in the field of plants cognitive neurophysiology. In the conference where we met, Professor Mancuso explained how studying and understanding plants behaviors had become a key factor for human kind because, for the first time in history, as humans, we had created a technological infrastructure that escaped the animal species schematics, we had invented the world wide web. The world wide web, commonly known as “internet” is a technological infrastructure that has connected people all over the world and with actual diffusion is starting to look a lot like something very similar to plants roots.
We judge things based on our perception of what we know. It’s not by chance that we define people impaired by movement and cognition as “vegetables”. We assume that vegetables don’t have any kind of cognition simply because they are so different from us that we miss their real nature and capabilities. Since the beginning of evolution plants and animals took a snappy crossroad. Animals evolved adopting “movement” as the main path, plants took instead the “steady rooted” path. We can track back to this evolutionary path the core nature of the different development. Taking the evolutionary path of staying rooted to the ground, plants had to develop adaptive strategies based on this fundamental aspect of their nature. They cannot escape threats, they cannot avoid problems, they need to be resilient and adapt to their surrounding environment finding a survival balance with it. The key word to understand the evolutionary strategies that differentiate plants and animals is “diffusion”. Not being able to move, plants had to maximize their resilience and resilience is strictly connected to distribution and diffusion. Animal biological structure is based on specialized organs performing specialized functions, plants, on the contrary, developed a biological structure in wich all life functions are diffused across their entire being. Animals think and decide with their brain, oxygenate their blood with lungs, pump the blood through their hearts, move through their muscles and so on. Plants think, breath, communicate and decide across their entire structure. It’s very difficult for us, as human beings, to comprehend how a living creature could perform such complex activities without specialized organs, but the research conducted by Professor Mancuso and his colleagues has proven the contrary. Plants perform all the complicated functions we perform in the animal world, but with enhanced evolutionary effectiveness. Plants live their lives as part of a dense interconnected and interdependent network through their roots, that can be considered the most important part of their structure. Through their roots plants communicate, exchange resources with the environment, take care of each other and compete for space and energy. It’s easy now to understand how similar the world wide web human interconnected and globalized society appears so similar to a vegetable world. So, what can we learn from plants? One of the core competencies we can acquire from plants is “resilience” mechanisms. As said before, plants cannot escape from any kind of threats, so they had to develop strategies to cope with any potential issue. Building on their diffused distribution of life functions, plants have developed an extremely high level of the so called “acceptable predatory threshold”. They allow a high portion of their bodies to be predated by animals, insects, birds, fungus and bacteria. When this predatory threshold is exceeded they start enacting internal mutations in order to poison or manipulate predators. This predatory threshold is extremely effective and allows plants to survive incredible levels of damage even by catastrophic events like fire. Another important characteristic of plants his their “problem solving” approach. They cannot escape problems, they need to solve the issues standing where they are. Plants have developed what in leadership is called “Solution oriented problem solving”, they need to find solutions no matter what the problem is, that’s the only way they can survive. Another highlight related to problem solving is their collective approach. Plants always think collectively when facing a problem or a threat. One astonishing case study was discovered by Professor Mancuso during a research conducted in Africa. An abnormal number of herbivores was isolated inside a natural reserve to preserve it from extinction. In the following months, many of these animals were found dead. Analyzing the animals remains, researchers struggled to identify the cause of death, but they noticed the animal stomachs were full of a certain type of plant. In the beginning they thought it could be some kind of bacteria or virus connected to the animal digestive system but not able to correlate the deaths to any kind of specific internal cause, they involved Professor Mancuso. Mancuso shifted the search from the animals to the plant they were feeding from. He discovered that the plants leaves were showing an abnormal level of tannin. Tannin is a normal substance contained in plants leaves, but when the concentration of this substance becomes too high, it becomes poisonous. Mancuso research discovered that plants inside the reserve, being submitted to an abnormal level of predation due to the high local concentration of herbivores, had started a collective defense action through a poisoning mechanism in order to reduce the level of predation. Mancuso research also found that plants inside the reserve were communicating the incoming threat to the vegetation network outside the reserve. He discovered that all plants in a certain radius of the reserve had started increasing their natural level of tannin. This astonishing example shows how complex and effective plants problem solving is. Last but not least plants had to develop effective strategies to achieve a sustainable energy management. Sustainability is one of the main characteristics of vegetables. They cannot move in order to reach new places where they can utilize resources, so they had to develop strategies to maximize the use of resources right where they stand. Plants develop an amazing balance between maximizing the use of every available resource. Solar energy, heat from the ground, humidity from the air, soil nutrients, you name it you can be sure plants can squeeze every possible bit of energy from what is available to them, but in counterpart, they exchange amazing quantity of other important substances with the environment, above all, oxygen. Plants have an extremely balanced ratio between utilized and produced energy, that’s why they can be considered the ultimate sustainable machine. Animals, on the other hand, and humans above all, are extremely inefficient energy consumers. They consume energy and resources till when running short and then they move to different locations in order to find other resources to consume. Sustainable diffused functional models are becoming essential in organizational leadership models. Living in a globalized interconnected society requires human kind to think and apply new paradigms. Centralized decision making and decentralized execution models are becoming less and less effective in promoting evolutionary success of human kind. At this point it should have become obvious how plants structure and functional mechanisms are so vital for a globalized community to understand and implement. Global community and organizations of all kind need new strategies to completely rethink the way they perceive, think and act. Sustainability, collective action, networked functioning, collective decision making models, resonant leadership, empowerment, are only few of the recurring mantras we hear when we speak nowadays about organizational effectiveness and complexity driven societies. Plants could provide us with the definitive answer.