HomeNewsDirector’s Almanac: A season for leadership at all levels

Director’s Almanac: A season for leadership at all levels

Most people think of spring as a time of renewal and rebirth. But if you’re an academic, that feeling is reserved for fall. It’s fall when the students come back to campus and when we begin teaching and mentoring a new crop of young and inquisitive learners.

It’s also when the Institute on the Environment opens its doors to more than 6,000 incoming undergraduates — a chance for new “gophers” to see firsthand the experiences they can have at the University of Minnesota that relate to the environment. This year’s SustAction! Day (below) was inspiring and happily exhausting. Seemingly each year more than the one before, students are expressing an interest in sustainability, both personally and academically.


It’s not that the summer isn’t busy, of course. It’s a common misperception that academics spend their summers frolicking in the warm weather, free of obligations. IonE took on a particularly ambitious project this summer — albeit structural. We have been working through an organizational redesign, a re-envisioning of our services and programs to better facilitate team scholarship, more clearly articulate our core capabilities, and increase our efficiency.

Soon we will welcome new leaders to IonE in the form of three new Associate Directors who will lead three new programmatic groups: knowledge (filling essential knowledge gaps needed to move the needle on sustainability), leadership (building future leaders to put sustainability in practice) and a journalism lab (telling the stories society needs to inspire sustainability action). Searches for two of these positions will begin soon, and a committee including members of our Faculty Leadership Council, students, and IonE staff has been formed to guide that process.

But as the fall arrives, a natural focus on leadership and education emerges each year because students are a major target for IonE leadership development. We reach students through courses such as GCC 3005, Global Venture Design (our own Fred Rose, with IonE Fellows Steve Kelly and Tom Fisher) and my new class (with IonE Fellow Dan Phillipon), GCC 3025, Leading the Good Life at the End of the World. We touch students through the university-wide Sustainability Studies minor as well as our Acara program, a leadership incubator for students from any discipline who want to solve real-world challenges (which is hosting its annual open house on Monday, September 24). And we already started the semester’s offering of programming for graduate students, to prepare them for diverse careers in sustainability inside the academy and out.

We do know that sustainability leadership is much more than understanding key principles – how carbon cycles around the globe or how nutrients flow off agricultural fields. It’s also about soft skills – an ability to collaborate, work across differences and divides, and persuade others with good data and compelling narrative. Leadership is about self-discovery and a willingness to take risks in service to a greater good. And it’s a lifelong pursuit, not just for students but also for faculty, nonprofit and government leaders, executives, and other decision-makers who confront environment and sustainability challenges professionally. That’s why we direct leadership programming to these audiences too.

Each of us needs to continually grow as a leader so that we can reach our full potential – and to grow, we must practice. I know that leadership is needed to steer IonE through its redesign, so this summer I sought out the wisdom of others leading impactful organizations, including people on our own External Advisory Board. I know that leadership is needed to make IonE a more diverse and welcoming place, and that’s why I took a course this summer on institutional racism. And I know that IonE itself can be an academic leader in creating a new kind of university, and that’s why I’m especially excited about a new grant from the National Academies to scale interdisciplinary research.

For the like-minded people who choose to associate with IonE – as employees, students, affiliates, and friends – our institute has to show leadership of its own. We must continue to push boundaries, create new ways of working at the overlap of disciplines and sectors, and hone our focus on impact. This is IonE’s role in the university and the broader world – and it’s what will keep that fall cycle of change-makers coming.

In planetary prosperity,



P.S. While we’re talking fall… it’s also the time of year when we invite a new class of affiliates to join the IonE community. (If you’re interested, don’t delay: The deadline is Monday, September 17!) It’s also the time of year when we gather our students, staff, affiliates, partners, and friends at the IonE Annual Meeting (Friday, September 28). There’s still time to RSVP for that, too. The Annual Meeting is when hundreds of like-minded people come together to interact and rejuvenate their commitment to helping create a future where people and planet prosper together.

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