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The Magic of Mushrooms in Our Ecosystems

Metaphorical mushrooms can help save our organizational worlds

mushrooms on the forest floor surrounded by leaves

Last week I wrote a lot about grief—a feeling that, for nearly all of us, can be gut-wrenching. This week I want to turn my attention to a less intense element of the “ecosystem,” one that plays an important, if at times almost invisible, part in our organizational health. It’s essentially about taking the advice of the fungi-focused anthropologist Anna Tsing who says, “For the moment, it seems important to appreciate the mushroom.”

This connection between our companies and mycology might seem at first a bit out there, but stay with me for a few minutes. Connection, it turns out, is a big part of what makes mushrooms so important in nature. Fungi play an enormously important role in ecosystem health; they generate humus, help fight disease, effectively reallocate resources, provide needed nutrients to other plants, and quietly issue warnings when the soil is under attack. Of late, it’s become increasingly clear to me that there are people in our workplaces who play much the same role—folks I’ve come to think of as the equivalent of “mushrooms” in our organizational ecosystems. As with fungi in a forest, if we’re not paying proper attention, we will likely walk right past them, or worse still, we trample on them. The book Mycelium Running, by mycologist and prolific author Paul Stamets, is subtitled How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. What follows is a look at how the metaphorical “mushrooms” in our ecosystems can help do much the same for our organizations.

In a work world in which superstar CEOs get most of the attention, these women and men are simply “good Samaritans.” They don’t ask for all that much, but they do a lot! They help new staff members travel through unfamiliar territory. They gently work to keep their more easily excited coworkers from getting overwhelmed. They quietly provide counsel to leaders who are at risk of losing touch. Rather than racing after approval and recognition from higher ups, they show up every day with humility. Instead of creating conflict, they encourage calm and facilitate collaboration. Like the fungi in the natural ecosystem, they aren’t about being in charge—they just want to play their part and play it well. In the process, they encourage the easily ignored, but nevertheless critical, connection that’s so important to the vitality of cultural soils. In the long run, I’m convinced they contribute as much to the health of our organizations as highly touted strategists and visionary CEOs. Either, without the other, will not get to greatness.

While it’s easy to overlook these folks in the daily hustle and bustle of business, when they aren’t present, our organizations are likely to encounter a host of cultural challenges. Remembering that “culture” in the ecosystem metaphor is “soil,” the website Nutrition Matters says, “Soil-life analysis around the globe reveals that most soils are lacking … fungi.” Unhealthy organizational cultures, I’ve come to see, are also missing these sorts of “mushrooms.” Without them, businesses may raise a lot of capital or make a quick buck, but they’ll be hard pressed to create the sort of long-term sustainability to which most anyone reading this essay aspires. In farming, forestry, and business, short term benefits can look promising, but in the long run the “commons” suffers. As sustainable forestry scientist Suzanne Simard says, “The policymakers seemed to have forgotten that the forest is much more than a collection of fast-growing trees. Gunning for fast early growth by weeding out native plants in hopes of future profits was not going to end well. For anyone.” She also states, “Companies focused on cheap, quick fixes and the bottom line” failed. Mycologist Paul Stamets warns that in nature, “Our ignorance [of the fungi could] lead to our extinction.” At work it can subvert our cultures, and eventually, I believe, put us out of business.

Conversely, where we encourage “mushrooms,” health often follows. And as Paul Stamets explains, “fungi actually make soil!” If you read much about regenerative agriculture, sustainable forestry, or permaculture, you might already have noticed that in the last few years mushrooms and fungi have been getting a lot of positive attention. Books like Dr. Simard’s terrific Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest, is one of a number of works that highlights the huge, and until relatively recently, little known, importance of fungi in nature. Simard’s work goes deep into the importance of mycorrhiza; miles and miles of tiny fungal roots that run beneath the surface, connecting plants, enhancing communication, moving nutrients, even sending warnings from one tree to another. The “mushrooms” I’m thinking about in our businesses are the folks in every organization who, often without getting credit and without asking for any, do much the same. Without winning headlines, they collaboratively get critical work done, helping us stay grounded and collectively calmer. They are the men and women who model what Rebecca Solnit is referencing when she writes, “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers.”

In basketball, coaches talk about bench players who are exceedingly valuable because they play a positive role in the locker room. Sometimes they’re referred to as “glue guys” because they help hold things together. They’re veterans who have the experience to help keep the culture where it needs to be, to translate what the coach is saying in ways that less grounded players can hear it. This is what these “mushrooms” can do for our organizations. They’re about attaining collective excellence, not ego. As mushroom hunter Ancil Jacques says, “Mushrooms are pretty endlessly cool.”

I’m pretty sure they don’t talk much about these “mushrooms” in business school; these sorts of unofficial organizational “culture builders” would rarely, if ever, be acknowledged. Their names don’t appear in boxes on org charts or on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. From a big picture, organizational perspective, they’re essentially invisible. Most case studies, literally, follow the leaders. Janisse Ray writes, “The cult of stardom comes at the expense of the entire culture … When a single story obfuscates the many, the entire culture suffers.” By taking time to find, and then support, the “mushrooms” in our organizational ecosystems we can effectively rebalance things so that instead of suffering, the culture can come alive in all its natural bounty and beauty. To make that happen, we could follow Dr. Tsing’s suggestion: “Next time you walk through a forest, look down.”

It’s much the same in our organizations. While most of us pay little attention to mushrooms—either in real life or in the metaphorical ecosystems of our organizations—Tsing notes that a few wise men and women understand their magical powers. Tsing offers that it’s time for us to make “an appeal to matsutake to help us build models of well-being in which humans and nonhumans alike might thrive.” The mushroom, she writes, “is not just a delicious food; it is also a valued participant in a world of ecological well-being.”

This is my adaptation and application of Anna Tsing’s appeal: To ask all of us as leaders, me included, to slow down and look to the world “at and under our feet’’ to find the mushrooms that are already there. And then to nurture and support them, which in turn makes our organizations healthier and our leadership more effective. These are some of the many contributions to our ecosystems that I’ve come to see in recent months. When we let them, these “mushrooms” will help:

Improve our communication. While we as leaders can make announcements, send emails, and call meetings (yes, I do all of them), a great deal of the “real life” communication that happens in organizations is informal, below the surface. As mycologist Merlin Sheldrake shares, fungi “allow plants to communicate with one another.” Similarly, in our organizations, “mushrooms” are the men and women who will “translate” messages from upper-level managers, communicate across department lines, and informally help folks who are frustrated with each other to find common ground. As Anna Tsing says, the credit we erroneously assign to leaders is, nearly always, “the fruit of an underground common.”

Keep upper-level leaders connected with the culture. These cultural converters are the folks in the company who can, and will, go to the CEO to share concerns before it gets to a breaking point. As Paul Stamets explains, the fungi in the soil are extremely sensitive; they pick up on all sorts of small shifts that are easily missed by those who are “higher up” in the ecosystem. By sharing concerns, pointing out potential incongruities, and raising awkward issues, “mushrooms” keep us leaders better connected to our companies. As one CEO told Inc. magazine recently, “I realized I’d built a wall between me and my employees. I had what I call ‘CEO disease.’ I wasn’t open to feedback. I didn’t think I could be wrong.” The good news is, he and the company both had a full recovery.

Enhance our organizational immune systems. Paul Stamets says, “Mushrooms have many helpful nutrients … nerve growth stimulators for helping brain function, and antimicrobial compounds for limiting viruses.” The metaphorical “mushrooms” can do the same for organizational health as well; they help us think things through more effectively, bring us the benefits of being focused on purpose, and ward off potentially damaging problems.

Develop symbiotic relationships with “trees.” In my metaphorical model, we’ll say folks in more formal leadership roles are akin to trees. In nature, it turns out that trees and fungi have a wonderfully symbiotic relationship; either one without the other would be far less successful. In organizations, the leaders help to create positive settings in which the organization’s members can grow as people and financially; the “mushrooms” return cultural stability and exceptional insight. Tim Flannery says, “A tree’s most important means of staying connected to other trees is a ‘wood wide web’ of soil fungi that connects vegetation in an intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods.”

Quietly stabilize culture. When behind-the-scenes grumbling starts in employee break rooms and on back docks, “mushrooms” are the folks who will calm the tension by helping their colleagues to reground and regain a more positive perspective. As Anna Tsing says, “Mushrooms pull me back into my senses … reminding me of the good fortune of just happening to be there.”

Help leaders see more clearly and make better decisions. Paul Stamets talks about mushrooms that are luminescent—they actually give off light. Same goes for “mushrooms” in the organizational ecosystem; they help us, as leaders, see more effectively. Their humility and experience make them fine thinking partners for formal leaders. They can help talk through awkward issues in informal ways that can wonderfully inform the decisions leaders will later need to make. In the process, both parties benefit. As David Whyte writes, “Both people are emancipated into the next stage of the relationship.”

Rebalance organizational power. Fungi in nature help to move carbon from one tree to another. In the organizational ecosystem metaphor, carbon is power. The “mushrooms” in our businesses can quietly reallocate practical, “down-to-earth,” power in the organization, encouraging front line folks who aren’t ready to speak up to share their thoughts, helping leaders to slow down and make much needed space for others.

Serve as sounding boards for stressed out staff. Gareth Higgins says, “What you need most is an open heart, someone to talk to, and a willingness to write your true self into the fabric of the world around you, concerning yourself less with other people’s judgments and more with the common good.” The “mushrooms” in the organizational ecosystem do just that. They are the people to whom colleagues go to share concerns, people who can listen and help turn frustrations into positive paths forward. With their help, we can enhance organizational health by creating what Suzanne Simard calls, an “exquisite underground mushroom system.”

Handle difficult situations that we might struggle with on our own. Fungi can be used to treat oil spills and similar ecological disasters. As Anna Tsing says, “Fungi made soil by digesting rocks.” I love the image. In the metaphorical model, it means that they help turn seemingly rocky times into healthy organizational culture. Like mushrooms in nature, these folks are often at their best in stressful situations; when the organization is in trouble, it’s often these magical metaphorical mushrooms that can help heal. As Paul Stamets shares, “In the wake of catastrophes, fungal diversity helps restore devastated habitats.”

They stabilize the culture in a natural way. The hierarchical model encourages leaders to “put their foot down,” “enforce the rules,” and eliminate dissension. Action steps of that sort may get a bit of short term quiet, but in the long run leave the ecosystem lacking in its natural diversity. In nature, farmers are starting to use mushrooms to fight climate change. “Mushrooms” in the organizational ecosystem can do much the same; they help to steady things, to minimize swings to the extreme, to keep cultural “temperatures” more moderate and to keep carbon, the metaphorical equivalent of power, in the cultural soil where it really belongs.

Give leaders a “safe” space to be vulnerable. These “mushrooms” are folks with whom managers can maybe, at times, more easily admit what they don’t know. They are men and women without formal power, to whom those with big titles will go for help, insight, and guidance. David Whyte writes:

The ability to ask beautiful questions, often, in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered. You don’t have to do anything about it. You just have to keep asking, and before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.

The “mushrooms,” for me at least, are the people to whom these sorts of beautiful questions can be quietly but effectively asked. In the process, our organizational cultures become richer and healthier.

I will add that, as in nature, there are some individuals in our organizations who can, in essence, act like “poisonous mushrooms.” They do much of the same communicating work and also serve as sounding boards for stressed out staff members, but they use their cultural connections to seed dissension, feed fear, and exacerbate problems. They’re not, I believe, bad people, but their own insecurities lead them in unhealthy directions, and if we let them, they will “poison” our organizational cultures in the process. Every good “mushroom hunter” learns to tell the difference between what’s healthful and what’s harmful. While we need to study our “shrooms,” most fungi, like most people, are positive contributors. As Paul Stamets reminds us, “Very few mushrooms actually are poisonous.” Unfortunately, anytime someone eats one, he says, “it immediately gets in the headlines.” As a result of this anxiety, mainstream society has developed a good bit of mycophobia, or “fear of mushrooms.” This negative narrative parallels the unhealthy six stories that I wrote about a few weeks ago. As Peter McCoy writes in Radical Mycology, “… I find the degree to which certain societies fear fungi not only intriguing but … [also] reflective of that culture’s relationship with the world—a more cryptic and darker expression of human-fungal relations.”

And, I will suggest that some “mushrooms” have truly magical powers. As Michael Pollan (a big advocate for psychedelics) said recently, these mushrooms can be used “to change consciousness.” In the organizational ecosystem model these are the folks who really help leaders to see their world in new ways. They help us remember, as people who’ve experienced psychedelic mushrooms often describe, the understanding that “all is one.”

Dr. Tsing says that one of the prime tools of effective mushroom hunters is “noticing.” When we pay attention, we start to find mushrooms. When we become mushroom “hunters”—folks who know how to locate the “mushrooms” that less focused folks will miss—to tap their wisdom and ability and make the organization healthier in the process. What do we do when we find these sorts of folks in our organizations? Nurture them. Honor them. Even though they aren’t pursuing “advancement” up the org chart, they are essential elements of our organizational health. As Paul Stamets says, “The fungi are willing to teach us. The question is, are we willing to listen?” Whether it’s to mushrooms in nature, or metaphorical “mushrooms” in our organizations, listening, and learning from what we hear, can provide us with great insight and powerful answers, because, as Brenda Ueland writes, “ … listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.” We can also work to enhance our practice of humbleness; in nature most all fungi live either in, or just above, the topsoil, which, in this model, is the metaphorical equivalent of humility. As Erin McMorrow advises, “The mundane is the awesome. The simple is the spectacular.” And she recommends, “Take a breath and notice what’s possible. Notice what’s already available to us, every single day.”

There are folks in our cultures who can help us listen better, help keep us healthy, and help us get to the organizational greatness to which we’re collectively committed. Again, at its best this is a symbiotic relationship—the mushrooms won’t, on their own, make forests; but the trees without the mushrooms will also fail. As Paul Stamets (who calls himself “the mycelial messenger of my time”) says, if we make the most of mushrooms, they “will take us into heretofore unknown territories that will be just magnificent in their implications.” Or more directly, as folks in the mushroom world have taken to saying, “May the fungi be with you!”


*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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