A Call for Leadership

I love my children, and like many of you I want a healthy planet so the next generation might live healthy, fulfilling lives – and their children, their children’s children and so forth. But that future is in doubt. This post is the 2nd in a series dedicated to exploring the current reality and how we might close the gap between that reality and our aspirations for a healthy planet. If you missed the 1st post, The Greatest Challenge of Our Time, I urge you to read it before reading this post further.

Logan and Audrey in their snow fort.

Logan and Audrey in their snow fort.

I admit my role in contributing to our current ecological footprint. I have a nice home, automobiles, and gadgets not essential for my survival. Like so many I use more resources than I need for a healthy, content life. Getting you, me and others to live on this planet without spoiling it is the greatest adaptive challenge of our time. Reducing our ecological footprint will need all of us to become aware and then to change – to let go of things and adopt different habits that are fun, rewarding, and healthy for us and the planet. We have to adapt but it’s unlikely we will without intervention. To address the greatest adaptive challenge of our time, we Nature professionals must learn to intervene skillfully to help others (and ourselves) close the gap between our hope for a healthy planet and the current reality.

I believe the framework for that work is the principles of adaptive leadership. According to its originators’ at Cambridge Leadership Associates, “Adaptive Leadership emerged from thirty plus years of research at Harvard University by Dr. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, defining the frontier of leadership training and development. Adaptive Leadership is a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments. It is being able, both individually and collectively, to take on the gradual but meaningful process of adaptation. It is about diagnosing the essential from the expendable and bringing about a real change to the status quo.”

Calling for social and economic change seems uncomfortable. As Nature professionals it’s perhaps easier to be what Leopold described as “land-doctors” busying ourselves with “alleviations of biotic pain.” And for many of us that is what we’re paid to do. But if we value Nature and humans we should follow Olaus Murie’s call to “look at the horizon,” and Leopold’s advice to shift cultural attitudes toward land health.

Leopold used prose and science to articulate the sustainable Nature relationship promoted by Native Americans like Chief Seattle. Leopold explained the why but he didn’t have the benefit of behavioral science research to help lead people to the solution – his proposed land ethic. However what Leopold lacked in access to today’s leadership philosophy he made up for with emotional intelligence. As demonstrated in the Management Assistance Team Webinar “Leopold, Leadership and You” Leopold scholars Drs. Curt Meine and Julianne Warren shared that Leopold intuitively exhibited adaptive leadership in many ways. They described how he was adept at diagnosing the underlying values that landowners held. Rather than vilify, he developed relationships with farmers and others that were responsible for the land sickness he so much wanted to cure. He experimented with ways to mobilize others to help them keep things most important to them while doing away with practices that harmed Nature. He recognized and tried to address his biases while managing his personal life very well.

Increasing global footprint is our challenge.

Increasing global footprint is our challenge.

In the age of the Anthropocene the adaptive challenge is helping humanity address the conflict between an increasing human footprint and the health of the planet. We must help people plan for an existence that is sustainable – doing what is essential and letting go of what is not. In the age of the Anthropocene a Nature organization will have to adapt by changing priorities. Their focus must shift to the socio-ecological mixing zone where neuroscience is just as important as conservation biology. It is within that human-Nature interface where the Nature professions real work lies. Within that zone is conflict and that is where we find the adaptive challenge.

Addressing the adaptive challenge of the Anthropocene requires all hands on deck. Every Nature professional must become adept at exhibiting adaptive leadership: diagnosing the situation; energizing others; managing self; and intervening skillfully to guide the distribution of loss that will be required to make progress. Leopold got us started and together we can move humanity in the right direction. There are thousands of Nature professionals in thousands of communities. Just imagine how successful we would be if we joined together for the same purpose! How powerful would we be if we addressed the greatest challenge of our time together?

Ronald Heifetz et al, in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership broke the act of leadership into four main components: diagnosing the system; mobilizing the system; seeing self as system; and deploying yourself. In upcoming posts I’ll explore these steps in greater detail. In the meantime watch this TEDx Presentation as Marty Linsky explains the fundamentals of adaptive leadership. Finally, in the next week chat with a few of your colleagues about the Anthropocene and take note of the stories they tell you. Have they heard of it? Together can you find personal connections to it?

Thank you for following along. If something in this post resonates with you, share it with others. And as always I encourage comments, questions and observations. Please join me in subsequent posts where I’ll explore how we can use the tools of adaptive leadership to close the gap between reality and our dream for a sustainable future.

Posted in Adaptive Leadership, Aldo Leopold, Anthropocene, Conservation, Leadership, Olaus Murie, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Don’t Miss This Opportunity: Ending April 30th

If you care about conservation then you will want to see the free screening of this new film about the Anthropocene – it is very good. The film length is about an hour so plan accordingly but don’t delay!

Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/fetnSYasbjA

Please spread the word.

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The Greatest Challenge of Our Time

In one of my favorite passages from A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold describes his aspirations for his children.

I have congenital hunting fever and three sons. As little tots, they spent their time playing with my decoys and scouring vacant lots with wooden guns. I hope to leave them good health, an education, and possibly even a competence. But what are they going to do with these if there are no more deer in the hills, and no more quail in the coverts? No more snipe whistling in the meadow, no more piping of widgeons and chattering of teal as darkness covers the marsh; no more whistling of swift wings when the morning star pales in the east? And when the dawn-wind stirs through the ancient cottonwoods, and the gray light steals down from the hills over the old river sliding softly past its wide brown sandbars – what if there be no more goose music?

Those words pluck at my heart strings. I hear a father laying out his responsibilities as a parent: keep the kids safe; make sure they get a good education; and help them learn to survive and thrive in the world. I also hear concern. It seems for Leopold, Nature was essential to living. And a healthy planet was essential for Nature. In other words, to take care of the kids, we must take care of the Earth.

Leopold Family (Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation)

Leopold Family (Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation)

Nearly 70 years have passed since Leopold penned those words. As a father I too share similar hopes and dreams. I love Logan and Audrey more than anything. My dream is for them to live healthy, fulfilling lives – as well as their children, their children’s children and so forth. Like Leopold I believe Nature and a healthy planet are essential for present and future generations. Given emerging scientific evidence, I fear our hopes may not come true.

Many geologists agree humans have changed the Earth so much that it’s in a new geological epoch dubbed the Anthropocene (Steffen et al. 2007). In our time human activities are dominating ecosystems with rippling consequences of global soil loss, mass extinction, climate change, and others. Many people including scientists and economists with the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy believe these problems stem from our consumer culture. What causes or supports that culture? There are many. Perhaps it starts with governments and politicians encouraging economic growth. They believe economic growth is the only path forward. A path built upon growing consumption and waste production (Czech 2013).

Federal Reserve Board

Federal Reserve Board

The problem is Earth’s resources are finite. Like a bank account can’t support deficit spending forever the planet can’t support economic growth forever either. It’s a fact. Current production and consumption of energy and minerals (for our bodies and machines) directly and indirectly creates a suite of problems from loss of habitat to pollution to disorganizing the land community through introduction of exotic species and loss of species diversity (Steffen 2011). Essentially as humanity’s ecological footprint grows the planet’s ability to sustain us and Nature diminishes.

As I shared previously, experts at the Global Footprint Network, report that if every human on the planet lived the lifestyle of the average American, humanity would need four Earths’ worth of biocapacity each year (McLellan et al. 2014). This unsustainable consumption and wasting will stop eventually. It seems obvious that if we don’t change – if we don’t adapt – future generations of people and wildlife are in trouble. So really the question is do we want to manage for a better outcome?

In 1920, Aldo Leopold urged others to, “respect [Earth] collectively not only as a useful servant but as a living being, vastly less alive than ourselves in degree, but vastly greater than ourselves in time and space.” (Newton 2006) In A Sand County Almanac he would later suggest man not view himself as “conqueror of the land community but plain member and citizen of it.” The pivotal message from the book was the need for humanity to adopt a land ethic – a moral compass to guide us toward a sustainable relationship with our home. Today many use a more encompassing term – the Earth ethic.

Has his idea caught our attention? Today it’s clear Leopold was an innovator. The solution he presented created awareness, triggering a shift in modern society’s relationship with Nature – a needed social adaptation. But in the beginning his bright idea didn’t seem so bright to many – saving trees, saving soil, valuing predators, leaving areas roadless, living simply, and so on. In line with the Diffusion of Innovation theory (Rogers 1962), Leopold’s great idea had few early adopters. Published in 1949, sales of A Sand County Almanac didn’t really take off until the 1960s (Lane 2007).

Diffusion of Innovation (Courtesy of skydeckcartoons.com)

Depiction of the Diffusion of Innovation (Courtesy of skydeckcartoons.com)

One of the early adopters of Leopold’s theory was Jay “Ding” Darling. As depicted in an excellent documentary, America’s Darling, he was a champion for an Earth ethic in his own unique way. Unlike most of Leopold’s early followers, Darling was a nationally-celebrated character and held the highest position of authority in the Bureau of Biological Survey (later the US Fish and Wildlife Service). In political cartoons throughout his life, Darling called the nation’s attention to the destruction of Nature. In the 1930s, as the head of the Biological Survey he pushed hard for funds and legislation to restore and protect Nature, even if he had to go against the most powerful figure in the country. In a 1935 note to his boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he wrote:

The six million we got from Congress and which you think is enough, is mostly going to buy Okefenokee, the ranches on the winter elk range in Jackson Hole….I need $4,000,000 for duck lands this year and the same bill which gave us the $6,000,000 specifically state that at your discretion you could allocate from the $4,800,000,000 money for migratory waterfowl restoration. We did a good job last year. Why cut us off now? (Lendt 1989)

Another early adopter was former Biological Survey biologist Olaus Murie. As an ecologist he latched on to many of Leopold’s ideas particularly the notion of a guiding ethic. In a 1954 address to members of The Wildlife Society, he had the courage to challenge his peers, stating:

We are not only dealing with animals and plants and soil and water. We are dealing with people as well. Whether we like it or not, we find ourselves in the midst of a struggle. Thoughtful people are trying to understand our place in Nature, trying to build a proper social fabric, groping for a code of ethics toward each other and toward nature….As members of our profession we have a responsibility to contribute to the highest thinking in this field…..We need to look up from our technical study at times and look at the horizon (Journal of Wildlife Management 1954).

Rachel Carson, another Service scientist, was also an early adopter of Leopold’s philosophy. As we know now, she summoned the courage to publicly turn up the heat on politicians and the public when it came to questions of economic growth versus Nature. In a 1952 letter to the editor of the Washington Post she ripped into the new Eisenhower administration for replacing well-qualified agency directors with politicians who had no scientific training, stating:

For many years public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been working for the conservation of the natural resource, realizing their vital importance to the Nation. Apparently their hard-won progress is to be wiped out, as a politically minded Administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction. It is one of the ironies of our time that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from within, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within (Lear 1998).

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Long ago Leopold introduced modern society to an idea. He described humanity’s greatest and most enduring challenge as living “on a piece of land without spoiling it,” in ways that enrich its “capacity for self-renewal” or, in other words, its health. Looking ahead, he wrote, “The direction is clear, and the first step is to throw your weight around on matters of right and wrong in land-use. Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits” (Flader 1992). Clearly Leopold foresaw a huge problem if people didn’t change their relationship with the planet.

Today we have scientific evidence validating what he anticipated. The Anthropocene is likely the greatest challenge of our time (Steffen 2011). Solutions are available but the majority are not ready. If so, our governments and politicians would adopt limits to economic growth via a steady state economy. With such an approach we would use social and political mechanisms to make sure we’re not consuming resources faster than they can be produced. We’d reduce, reuse and recycle. We’d make sure we’re not depositing wastes faster than the planet can absorb them (Czech 2013). We’d live not as cave people but within our ecological means.

But social adaptation stands between us and the solutions. Are we mentally ready to adopt a steady state economy and the changes in lifestyle it will require? Are we ready to engage others and mobilize them to do the same? Actually it doesn’t matter if we’re ready. We have no choice but to lead. Leadership theory now recognizes solutions to complex problems are found through our interactions with each other. This new approach, grounded in neuroscience and organizational theory, abandons the long-held belief that we depend upon one person or “leader” to solve the problem (Lichenstein 2006). In short, we can’t wait for one charismatic person to lead the global community to an Earth ethic. We have to do this.

Logan and Audrey in Sequoia National Park

Logan and Audrey absorb the Nature preserved in Sequoia National Park

I believe we have reason to be hopeful. Adoption of an Earth ethic is likely in the stage of what Everett Rogers defined as the “early majority.” Millions of copies of the Almanac have been sold and it’s been printed in 12 different languages. By now it’s likely millions have adopted an Earth ethic. Recycling, reusing, and reducing our ecological footprint is becoming the norm. CEOs now speak of environmental sustainability (Harvard Business Review 2014). Ecological limits to economic growth is now taught in major universities like University of California, University of Oregon, Virginia Tech and Oslo University College. Adoption of an Earth ethic is growing. But how long before we reach the “tipping point” and can we afford the current pace?

In a prescient 1962 commencement address at Scripps College, Rachel Carson concluded:

Your generation must come to terms with the environment. Your generation must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and a sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery – not of nature, but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny. ‘In today already walks tomorrow.’ (Scripps College Bulletin 1962)

Our kids need a healthy planet. Nature needs a healthy planet. And don’t forget we need a healthy planet too. So what are we doing about it? Are we “walking” in tomorrow? Would Rachel Carson be proud of us?

If we don’t lead, maybe everything will be OK. Maybe the Earth ethic will continue to grow. Maybe social adaptation will continue at a pace quick enough. But what if doesn’t? Can you imagine the costs and the conflicts? We already see the enormous sums of money spent in attempts to clean our air, restore land and fight for water. Imagine how badly it might get with a couple billion more people on the planet.

Yes, the challenge of our time is big and scary. But we have reason to be optimistic. Our understanding of human behaviors, economies and the planet is growing by leaps and bounds. With increasing access to information, I sense humans are adapting to new ideas and information at a faster rate than ever before. There is little doubt we’re in an amazing period of time.

I’m positive we will reach the Earth ethic tipping point before it’s too late. In upcoming posts I’ll describe ways experts suggest we close the gap between our aspirations and the current reality. I’ll share their suggestions on steps we can take together to speed up adoption of an Earth ethic. Steps developed and honed through the study of human behavior. To do so you, me and everyone else in the Nature profession will have to exhibit adaptive leadership.

Thank you for following along. If something here resonates please share it with others and start your own conversation. You might also make a reservation on your calendar in the next month to watch this TEDx presentation about the Anthropocene;  estimate your ecological footprint; watch this extremely popular TEDx presentation and learn more about the Diffusion of Innovation; or rent a copy of Green Fire, a documentary about Aldo Leopold or the film America’s Darling.

Note: I’d like to thank Drs. Brian Czech and Julianne Warren for exploring these thoughts with me over the past year. Certain phrases within this post originally appeared in a poster we presented in April 2014 to the Alaska Chapter of The Wildlife Society: Throwing Our Weight Around – Advancing a Steady State Economy for Earth Health.

Posted in Adaptive Leadership, Aldo Leopold, Anthropocene, Conservation, Ding Darling, Innovation, Leadership, Olaus Murie, Rachel Carson, Steady State Economy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Leadership is About the Distribution of Loss

This piece appeared originally in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on January 24, 2015. Students of adaptive leadership may pick up on themes like “distribution of loss,” “disappointing people at a rate they can tolerate,” and “people with the problem have to be the people with the solution.” Those familiar with Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory may notice some themes from the book in the situation described. While the adaptive challenge I discuss is cleaning up air pollution, the story is applicable to other environmental or conservation issues. As you read this you may imagine similarities to issues in your own community or workplace where there isn’t a single charismatic person leading others but a small group of dedicated, courageous people.

For almost a decade our community has been in conflict over dangerous concentrations of wood smoke pollution in the winter. We are suffering from mental, financial and physical harm arising from big heating bills and smoke particles themselves. In this struggle three groups emerged early. The first group – the hands-on group – suffered from dirty air or wanted to prevent that harm. The second group – the hands-off group – sensed a threat to their financial well-being from efforts to clean the air. The third group – the sideline group – chose to focus on other things. Today as more members of the third group join the conversation the tension has eased.

Smoke blanket on Fairbanks

Smoke blanket on Fairbanks

They say the world is run by those who show up. Our community needs people that have been on the sideline to get involved. If you breathe air and heat your home, now is the time to get involved because the Assembly is considering changes to reduce air pollution. Recent examples from other states suggests clean air and harmony will eventually be restored. But with such terrible pollution we need to pick up the pace. We can if more people leave the sideline and engage in the conversation.

In Missoula Montana residents were in gridlock over dirty air. In the beginning there were few who saw the need to put burn rules in place. Hands-on advocates and the hands-off folks were bitterly divided. But over time members of the sideline group became involved. These folks identified with some of the values and biases held by the opposing groups. They accepted there was a problem and that solutions were needed. They helped early members of both groups accept the compromises that would be necessary to achieve harmony and cleaner air.

Kids have a voice too.

Kids have a voice too.

Our community’s reaction to dirty air has, thus far, been normal. In the beginning members of the hands-on group asked members of the hands-off group to adapt too quickly. Any quick and cheap remedy that involved sacrifice from them was off the table. Fear of loss drove the hands-off group to the ballot box. The clean air group was in disbelief. Their bright ideas to clean the air weren’t so bright to some. Predictably the pollution grew worse.

As the problem grew more people from the sideline group took notice. Less certain about the problem and possible solutions they sought to understand all perspectives. After listening and learning they had sympathy for the hands-off group but recognized change was needed. Over time comments from the hands-off group changed from refusal that wood smoke is harmful to what are the most fair ways to clean the air. Likewise, the hand-on group has shifted more to the middle recognizing there is a place for wood burning if done responsibly. The recent public meeting was evidence we’re coming together. Looking at how our community is adapting to the idea of cleaning the air one might surmise we’ve reached the tipping point. In fact after several years, voters decided the hands-off approach hadn’t worked. We’re at the point where a majority agree there is a problem and rules that are fair to burners and breathers are needed.

Messages painted from the heart... for the lungs.

Messages painted from the heart… for the lungs.

Soon, perhaps on January 29th, our local government representatives in the Borough Assembly will decide if and how we can clean the air. By adopting a plan they admit will not meet clean air standards, the State of Alaska has placed the ball in the Assembly’s court. The pressure is on us, through our representatives, to protect ourselves from dirty air, cold temperatures and financial burdens in a manner that the majority deems fair. If ever there was a time for members of the sideline group to get involved, it’s now. If you’ve not been involved I urge you to see yourself as a member of the majority for clean air and warm homes. Listen to all opinions. Ask questions. Study how other communities handled their air pollution problem. Be ready to change your mind. And then share your thoughts with your representatives in the Assembly.

History has shown that in the midst of conflict a majority of people finally do come together to clean up their air. Our moment has arrived. I hope you’ll join the conversation and become a part of our community’s history.

They say leadership is risky business. It requires mobilizing others for some purpose without getting yanked from the dance floor. What is your purpose and what do you dance on the edge of your formal…or informal…authority for? 

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The Problem With Facts

The New Yorker recently published a blog by Maria Konnikova that serious conservationists ought to read. “I Don’t Want to Be Right” shares results of recent neuroscience studies and discussions with the researchers. In one study the investigator tested whether facts, science, emotions or stories would change the minds of parents that believed vaccines cause autism. The results were discouraging. The parents who originally believed vaccines cause autism actually became even more convinced they were right when presented with scientific facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. Images and stories were even less successful in swaying parents to reconsider their stance.

One of my favorite conservationists and mentor, Missouri Department of Conservation Agent, Mic Plunkett, taught me a great phrase, “Don’t confuse me with the facts, I already have my mind made up.” That simple sentence sums up the challenge we often face in conservation. How many times have you or your agency presented facts yet public attitudes remained unchanged or even more opposed?

Neuroscience is showing us that the likelihood of acceptance of a fact is based upon how it aligns with a person’s personal values, attitudes or beliefs. For example, a person with no connection or notions about ranching may quite readily trust your scientific statements about ranching and wildlife. On the contrary, a fourth-generation rancher is very likely to mistrust those same statements if they conflict with her views of being a good rancher.

Interestingly one researcher has found when people feel good about themselves they become more open to changing their misperceptions or behaviors. This theory makes some sense to me. I can recall when reluctance to changing my mind wasn’t so much about change but admitting I was wrong and that I may seem ignorant, insensitive, greedy…in essence a bad person. Letting go of these fears has become easier as I have realized that I’m not alone – that many others, good ,well-intended people, make mistakes in judgment too. Freeing one’s self from the fear of ridicule opens the door to diagnostic thinking and shifting positions as more information becomes available.


Landowner and USFWS Biologist

As I have written before, conservationists must acknowledge facts alone won’t lead to changes in people’s perceptions or behaviors. It seems as though all the money and data in the world won’t necessarily solve an issue if the information and conclusions threaten people’s sense of self. If you’ve been in the profession for long you know this is generally true. In trying to preempt later collisions between science and personal values, we share our knowledge of the natural world with those who have little to no bias – children. But what to do about the adults that refuse to believe us?

If emerging theories in neuroscience are correct how might we use this information to gain public acceptance and behavioral changes more quickly with those that already oppose us? I have a few thoughts I’ll describe briefly.

Be dispassionate. Check your passions at the door. Expressing strong feelings (verbally or non-verbally) can actually come across as a wish to insult your opposition’s intelligence or self-worth just to prove that you are right. Instead, be dispassionate about the issue and the data at hand. Begin by explaining why you or your agency must be involved, that to do otherwise would be irresponsible and dishonorable. Explain that your only “agenda” is to share the results of your agency’s information gathering.

Be humble. Expressing sincere humility sends a signal that you care more about the facts than a position or predetermined outcome. Admitting uncertainty about what to do with the science signals honesty. With a sense of honesty, trust opens the door to connecting and getting to solutions.

Be generous. If you’re really serious, the opposition will have reasons to like you despite the facts and/or your agency’s position. Leave the aspirations of your opposition intact. It’s likely you would have a similar position if you were in their shoes. Find and point out the good they do. Acknowledge the positive and downplay the negative. Honor their intentions and thank them for demonstrating how democracy and natural resource policy works.

When confronted with opposition to scientific facts I believe we would do well to remember that talking more or waving more data around isn’t going to change hearts and minds. Flooding opponents with facts has shown to actually backfire and move them further from acceptance or behavioral change. Instead, listen to them and get to know them. To move people to informed consent with you or your agency help them see the disagreement isn’t personal. Show you respect them. Work to keep their aspirations intact. Finding good in our stakeholders and encouraging their input will signal to others that you care and can be trusted…that, not facts, will help them change their minds.

What do you think? Have you successfully brought about behavioral changes of stakeholders? If so, how?

Posted in Conservation, Leadership | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Doing Leadership: An Act not a Static Characteristic or Position

A local acquaintance, no stranger to acts of leadership, posted an interesting article in our local newspaper, the Fairbanks Daily News Miner (www.newsminer.com). Kathryn Dodge references several leadership authorities in making a valuable point for a community trying to enact change: leadership is an activity and following someone can be an act of leadership. With permission, I’m sharing the article. Enjoy!

In America, we talk a lot about leaders. Our language implies that a person is a leader — as if it is a part of who they are, rather than the actions that they take. Marty Linsky suggests humans are not really “leaders,” but sometimes we engage in leadership acts — or “do leadership.” Further, he proposes that when we are engaging in actions that are expected of us based on our job description, we are not doing leadership — we are doing what we are authorized by others to do.

However, when we step outside our area of authority and into an area beyond our authorization, we then are “doing leadership.” This implies most of us are not leaders, rather sometimes we engage in leadership behavior. Why does acting outside our area of authority constitute leadership? When we act outside our authority, because it is the right thing to do, which is how Peter F. Drucker defines leadership, it allows us to be seen as leaders.

If we are just slightly outside our area of authority, we are leading a little bit; the further we venture from the area in which we are authorized to operate, the more we are engaging in leadership, and the riskier our actions become. I agree with Linsky that when we step into that space, when we say, “look, this is what we (community, organizations, friends) need to do,” that is when we are leading.

Citizens for Clean Air march in Fairbanks on October 4th, 2014

John Davies and fellow Citizens for Clean Air march in Fairbanks on October 4th, 2014

In his Ted Talk, Derek Sivers suggests leaders need followers, and the first person who follows what a “leader” is doing or saying is also engaging in leadership. In this example, we see someone taking a risk, associating themselves with someone doing something they are not yet authorized to do, endorsing the leader and joining them in the nether space of leadership that is outside their area of authorized action.

This is referred to as a “movement.” Sivers argues the leader embracing the first follower as an equal is important to this process. The second and third person to join the “movement” begin to normalize the act, transforming it into something that the majority, by their agreement and support, will norm into the leader’s purview.

What does this mean to us as community members, employees, parents, etc.? It allows people who don’t feel or look like “leaders” to understand that leadership isn’t a quality a person has, but an act a person takes. One does leadership by stepping a little outside their comfort zone and say, “Let’s do it a different way.” Then by enrolling a few followers, who also may bring others into the mix, the new action or idea becomes apart of everyday life.

This, friends, is truly leading the way — It’s that simple.

Kathryn Dodge is on the Northern Leadership Center Advisory Committee and is an Assistant Professor with the School of Natural Resources and Extension and Statewide Extension at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Kathryn Dodge is on the Northern Leadership Center Advisory Committee and is an Assistant Professor with the School of Natural Resources and Extension and Statewide Extension at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Leadership Lessons from a Zombie Apocalyspe (no, really!)

What a great summer! As fall arrives expect to see more posts. This guest contribution comes from a friend and colleague. Rollie White lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two teenage daughters. Rollie is a student of leadership philosophy and works darn hard in government. When not commuting on his bike or fishing, Rollie enjoys cooking with his wife and traveling. We hope you enjoy his observations on leadership!

Leadership lessons can come from just about anywhere. My favorite recent example came from a Hollywood blockbuster starring Brad Pitt called “World War Z.” In the movie, a virus that turns people into crazed, flesh-eating Zombies is spreading around the world. Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, is a family man who clearly has some sort of CIA/James Bond/special agent past. Lane is sent by what is left of the government to find a way to stop the virus. He eventually arrives in Jerusalem, where the Israelis have built a 10-meter high wall around the City just days before the Zombies arrive. Gerry Lane (Pitt) wants to know how the Israelis knew. From the script:


Gerry Lane: How did Israel know?
Jurgen Warmbrunn: We intercepted a communique from an Indian general, saying they were fighting the “rakshasa.. Translation, “zombies.” Technically, undead.
Gerry Lane: Jurgen Warmbrunn, high-ranking official in the Mossad. Described as sober, efficient, not terribly imaginative, and yet, you build a wall because you read a communique that mentions the word “zombie”?
Jurgen Warmbrunn: Well, if you put it like that, I’d be skeptical as well. In the ’30s, Jews refused to believe they could be sent to concentration camps. In ’72, we refused to believe we could be massacred in the Olympics. In the month before October 1973 we saw Arab troop movements, and we unanimously agreed that they didn’t pose a threat. Then, a month later, the Arab attack almost drove us into the sea. So, we decided to make a change.
Gerry Lane: A change?
Jurgen Warmbrunn: “The tenth man.” If nine of us with the same information arrived at the exact same conclusion, it’s the duty of the tenth man to disagree. No matter how improbable it may seem, the tenth man has to start thinking with the assumption that the other nine were wrong.
Gerry Lane: And you were that tenth man?
Jurgen Warmbrunn: Precisely. Since everyone assumed that this talk of zombies was cover for something else, I began my investigation on the assumption, that when they said, zombies they meant zombies.

The “10th Man”, or better yet, the “10th Person”, is not actually a real tenet of the Israeli intelligence operations. The idea is based, however, on a real approach the Israelis use: the Office of the Devil’s Advocate. Regardless of one’s views of the politics of Israel and the Middle East, it makes sense that the Israeli government feels it can ill afford to miss or underestimate any risk to its well-being – every threat must be assessed, and you can’t assess or defend against threats you don’t see. So the Israelis rely on the Devil’s Advocate’s Office to constructively criticize the rest of the Israeli intelligence operation, to ask “what if,” to think outside the box, to detect a threat that “Group Think” or complacency might miss.

Fortunately, so far in my Conservation Career, I have yet to have to deal with any Zombie Apocalypses. But time spent challenging old assumptions, thinking outside the box, or playing Devil’s Advocate has proved immensely valuable. Sometimes, this kind of thinking allows you to see a path to success when you have otherwise not seen one. Sometimes, you see a risk inherent in an approach you might have taken that can easily be inoculated against. Most often, the value comes from deliberately asking if the decision you just made was the right one – this is especially true if the decision made was a unanimous one.

The value in these cases comes later in time, when the going gets tough, or big challenges come up, and some on the team start to question the original decision. To be able to remind your team that “we asked that very question back when we made our decision, and we made the decision in full understanding of the consequences” is very valuable. As just one example, I served as a foreman on a jury in a civil case where a man had been injured and was suing his employer. When the jury ultimately found in favor of the employer, I asked the jurors to each offer up one idea or fact that would have made them find in the plaintiff’s favor. Most complied, and we discussed each briefly – did we miss that in testimony? Could it have happened? At the end, we were even more certain we had the right decisions. When I walked out of the jury room, I was very glad we had done so, as I watched the plaintiff sitting on a bench, sobbing his eyes out. While I certainly felt for the man, I never doubted the jury’s decision.

So you may be thinking that it is all fine and dandy for me to spout off about playing Devil’s advocate – my boss doesn’t like to be challenged and will never let us criticize management ideas. Fair enough – some people don’t like to be challenged and would perceive this kind of thinking as undermining their authority. By way of response, I’d suggest you model your own willingness to have someone tear apart your own ideas. Share this with the boss, and bring in the co-worker that “scrubbed” your idea. Model how an idea or decision can be strengthened by testing it, by doubting it, and by trying to bust it with a strong challenge. Sometimes, fearlessness can be infectious.

And please pass the popcorn – I have some more leadership lessons to find!


Have you ever worked with a “devil’s advocate?” Are they under appreciated in the workplace? What do you think? Rollie and I would like to hear from you.

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