The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met

Reading Time: 3 min 15s

Many years ago I was working as a facilitator on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People programme.

It was a wonderful occupation at a formative time in my own life.

Work with purpose is precious and I was very lucky to have it.

On the first evening of the programme we would gather around the TV in the conference room. It was time for the highlight of our day together.

Time to watch The Man Who Planted Trees.

In 1953, Readers Digest gave Jean Giono, one of France’s most famous authors, an interesting task. To write a story about the most extraordinary character he had ever met.

Inspired by a reverence for nature and to protect the forests of the world, Giono wrote The Man Who Planted Trees. It was to become his most loved story.

Much later it was converted into an animated film. A piece of work so well crafted that it won an Academy Award. The film is artistry and beauty at the highest level.

On every occasion, it cast its spell over me.

The story begins with a young man on a walking tour high in the mountains of Provence.

To his dismay, he discovers a barren and deserted wasteland … a place where water and life itself had ceased to flow.

In the far distance, he notices a lone figure. It’s Elzeard Bouffier – the hero of our story.

Having suffered personal tragedy, Bouffier had retreated into the highlands to be alone, with only his sheep and dog as company.

But, as the young man quickly discovered, there was so much more to Elzeard Bouffier.

Realising the land was sick and dying for lack of trees he had decided to put things right.

He was planting trees.

One hundred thousand in the first three years and the resolve to continue going until that number would seem like a drop in the ocean.

The young man visited our hero constantly over the next 35 years. In time he would change from sheep to beekeeping.

Yet his purpose never wavered … to restore the land by planting trees.

Slowly, and over many years, water began to flow again.

Communities sprung up in the valley below. Life in these villages revolved around the fountain, where water gushed up in abundance.

“Hope had returned.”

Ultimately, the storyteller concludes, more than “ten thousand people owed their happiness to Elzeard Bouffier.”

Today, more than ever before, this beautiful story resonates with me.

In the mid-1990s our country was trying to come to terms with the demons of the past and to build a new future. The story held meaning then. How do we put things right? How do we create a prosperous country for all who live in it?

Inauguration Day. Union Buildings, Pretoria. 10 May 1994

Today our land is still trying to heal.

We are still busy building the future.

And now another storm is blowing.

COVID 19 has dramatically disrupted our lives and livelihoods.

There is uncertainty.

We often feel anxious, unsure and overwhelmed.

Once again I am inspired by the life and actions of Elzeard Bouffier.

In 1914 the Great War broke out and raged on in Europe. Even so, he continued planting. Twenty-five years later the world was at war again. He still did not waver from his work.

The land needed to heal. It was his job to put it right.

Elzeard Bouffier’s dedication to the ultimate purpose of his life was constant and unyielding. Through good and (very) dark times he weathered the storm and created a new and bright future for thousands of people.

It is this, which makes him the hero of our story.

The image of a leader as a sower of seeds, a planter – a grower, is one I hold dear.

If you run a business, manage a team, lead a school, teach a class, or simply have responsibility for yourself, you are the one to make hope possible.

+ To weather the storm.

+ To sow the seeds and plant the trees.

Together, we have to ensure that the generations who come after us have a forest to walk in and a fountain to drink from.

We love hearing from you. Please comment on this blog post below.

Next time I’ll write about the CEO Rising Summit. There were fantastic contributions from Jim Collins, Verne Harnish, Ram Charan and Patrick Lencioni.

13 replies
  1. Craig Carolan
    Craig Carolan says:

    As always Grant, your words are well timed and inspiring. I always look forward to reading them. Many thanks.

  2. Anne Ngethe
    Anne Ngethe says:

    Thank you for inspirational writing Grant.

    I still vividly remember that clip, and the heady days of partnering with you and the FC business to bring 7 Habits to East Africa. What a season that was!

    I feel blessed to have interacted with you and the 7 Habits material, both of which shaped me in a powerful way and equipped me well for such a time as this. What a season this is!

    l wish you all the best as you continue to positively shape lives and mindsets through Leadership Works Grant.

  3. Lorne Sulcas
    Lorne Sulcas says:

    Beautiful and poignant, Grant. And so relevant in this unusual and, for many, trying time in which we find ourselves.

  4. Steve Hall
    Steve Hall says:

    Brilliant Grant !

    I must have watched that same movie 50 times, and many of them with you! Treasured times with a treasured friend.

    I loved being reminded of it, and enjoyed your fresh message. Thank You,


  5. Pierre Matthee-Fouche
    Pierre Matthee-Fouche says:

    HI Grant!
    So nice to see your name! Yes! This takes me back to the time when we were trained by Adel and Bongani with your input. The best foundation ever – The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People! Really hope you are doing well?
    Pierre Matthee-Fouché
    SARS School of Business


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