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Talking environmental leadership at ESA

A few weeks ago, Boreas visited the Ecological Society of America Conference. Amidst the many sciences talks, policy and communication workshops, and field trips, we carved out a couple hours to talk about developing environmental leadership. Together with a couple folks from the Leopold Leadership Program, I convened a special session entitled “Developing Environmental Leadership: Perspectives from Graduate to Mid-career Leadership Programs.” The session attracted folks at different career stages, from undergraduate through retirement.

The session ran at the end of a long conference day (from 8-10 p.m.), so we started with homemade cookies and a networking activity. I strongly believe in the idea of “relationship before task,” and cookies and connections help a lot. The reciprocity ring networking activity reminded the group that leaders need to be willing to ask for help, and we all have something to offer. The activity also got the room buzzing.

Once it got talking, the group then split into three, focusing conversations on several organizing questions.

  • Where and how have you learned best about your own leadership and potential for impact?
  • What skills/connection/practices/support systems do you think are important for developing environmental leaders? How do these differ at different points in a person’s career?
  • How could organizations you are part of help to develop people’s leadership capacities? Think of universities, agencies, professional societies, etc.

The questions naturally went into different territory, but a few themes emerged when we transitioned back to wider group conversation.

Action and reflection: Environmental leaders need more than technical knowledge about environmental issues, and they need more than theories about leadership. The group surfaced the idea that to learn leadership, one needs to actually try challenging things, have the opportunity to fail (maybe fail a few times) and then reflect on the experience to recognize leadership lessons. This idea is not unique to environmental leadership, but the scientific training many environmental leaders pursue happens in the expertise-focused culture of universities, which can make risk-taking more difficult. As a result, environmental leadership development programs could potentially have more impact if they consciously prioritize creating opportunities for participants to take on making actual events, relationship-development or activities happen.

Valuing leadership development and mentoring relationships: Figuring out how to make things happen doesn’t just happen. Developing environmental leaders takes valuing and prioritizing leadership development in the midst of many competing priorities. The small group discussing leadership development in organizations identified opportunities for leadership development in formal programs through mentoring relationships, training and wider-ranging career panels and programing. Informal groups such as a journal club focused on leadership development or a peer leadership support network can also create valuable leadership development opportunities. The key is to make time and put value on reflection on leadership and developing as a leader.

Hope as skill and action: Environmental challenges are hard, and they are overwhelming. Hope is an important part of what keeps environmental leaders going. Importantly, hope is more than an idea or belief, it’s part of action. Hope is what leaders can use to inspire collective action. Hope let’s leaders trust that what they are doing is enough, and that other will pick up and move forward parts of environmental solutions.

As I reflected on the session, thinking of lessons I learned for making the Boreas Leadership Program better, I was surprised. I expected more of a focus on skills, perhaps because skills are often the focus of leadership development program. But the evening’s conversation focused on relationships, reflection, and leadership as a practice over time.

As we start a new academic year, I’ll be working to create more opportunities for Boreas folks to practice leadership, to reflect on it, and to develop a leadership support system of different kinds of relationships. I’m excited to get these lessons from ESA into my practice of leadership development at Boreas.

Director of Boreas


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