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

Depiction of the Diffusion of Innovation (Courtesy of

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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 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?

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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 ( 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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Leadership lessons in Memphis.

I recently visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee with some friends and family. My guide that day was a dear friend, Dr. Gloria Baxter. Dr. Baxter has vivid memories of growing up in a segregated Memphis. As we absorbed the exhibits she would recall childhood memories that made the museum’s stories all the more real for me. For example, she recalled a black woman who her mother hired to iron their laundry once per week. Dr. Baxter, who is white, enjoyed playing with this woman’s children. As we read about Rosa Parks’ courageous stand on a bus in Montgomery, Dr. Baxter recalled riding a segregated bus in Memphis with her black playmates and their mother – in the back section for blacks – and refusing to sit with white strangers.

Dr. Baxter and me and Ms. Parks' bus.

Dr. Baxter and me with a bus similar to the one Rosa Parks rode.

Acts of leadership are all around us. From the simple, innocent and courageous acts of a girl to the calculated risks undertaken by a president, it takes all of us to make the world a better place. And that is one of the lessons I learned from my museum visit.

Obviously President Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr played pivotal roles in the movement to end segregation but there were others. Take for example, Reverend Frank Dukes. Mr. Dukes was a student at Miles College in Alabama in the early 60s and led a boycott of segregated businesses in Birmingham. I’ve included a photograph of a museum panel that captures a statement he made recalling the struggle. His statement succinctly demonstrates core principles of leadership – removing self from role to develop relationships with others.

A statement from Frank Dukes

A statement from Frank Dukes underscoring the power of removing self from role.

Leading others through particularly difficult issues requires interactions and developing relationships, particularly with those resistant to change and probably you and who you represent. Rev. Dukes had the courage to remove self from role – to view the racial slurs as data that indicated where the “white power structure” men were at. He didn’t take the insults personally. He seemed to have confidence he could help whites embrace desegregation if he was patient, persistent and gracious in the face of hatred and resistance to change. He kept his eye on the goal and was able to endure the racial slurs. And it worked. Slowly but surely his relationships with the whites strengthened, which opened doors to social adaptation and helped the later efforts of Dr. King.

There are no national holidays that remind us to reflect upon Reverend Frank Duke’s role in the war on hatred. But without him and the leadership of others the equality we enjoy today would not exist. As we think about the immense challenges facing the planet let us remember those that led in the fight for race equality. Let us remember that tackling tough adaptive challenges may require one or two Dr. Kings but most certainly many Dr. Baxters and Rev. Dukes – all kinds of people dancing on the edge of their formal or informal authority for the greater good.


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What Would Aldo Leopold Do?

It’s a fair question for a conservationist or really any person concerned with the future. After all, the man and his wise counsel are increasingly revered not only in the USA but around the world. He was innovative, passionate, and persuasive. His impact on how humans relate to the Earth is, in my opinion, a signature event in the history of humanity. If he were alive today I bet he would be doing many great things to advance a land ethic. And who doesn’t see the need for such an ethic today?

Currently we Americans are consuming more of the Earth than is sustainable. People in developing countries aren’t far behind in their pursuit to enjoy the comforts we’ve enjoyed for decades. Climate change is the recognized universal symbol of the problem. Yet, experts are documenting  more anthropogenic-driven changes endangering the planet’s biological, chemical and geological cycles.

Faced with such huge problems it is natural to search for a technical fix, but such thoughts are only a fool’s hope. Leopold recognized long ago the solution would come through an unwritten moral code that compels us to keep, conserve and restore the health of our planet. He recognized an ethic cannot be written by one person if it is to be embraced by all. He realized people with the problem have to be part of the solution, and correctly understood social change develops in the minds of a thinking community.

So what would Leopold do were he alive today? Perhaps he would ask us to continue the conversation – to work with him to enlarge the thinking community until our societies treat the land and its inhabitants not just as useful servants. What does that work look like? Can we do what he did?

Leopold deep in thought

Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation,

We need to lead others through the tough conversations about the problem and possible solutions. In adopting an Earth ethic, many people will realize the need to shed a part of their cultural DNA – the cultural norms of a society with an unsustainable ecological footprint. Helping others through this change (and surviving it yourself) will require lots of interactions and development of strong relationships with many others. That work, done well, is known today as adaptive leadership

History helps to ground us and, if we are willing, can set us in the right direction in our journey. We can learn much about addressing this problem from the brilliant yet humble Leopold. He was a practitioner of adaptive leadership before it had a name. With no  training, he diagnosed and mobilized the social system, viewed himself as a system, and survived and thrived through the challenges. His values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors can guide our steps forward. We can also learn how to affect social change from modern adaptive leadership scholars like Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz. What might we conservationists learn about leading others through change if we listened and learned from them all?

In search of an answer to that question, join Leopold scholars Drs. Curt Meine and Julianne Warren and me as we discuss Leopold’s life and work through the lens of adaptive leadership on Tuesday, April 8th from 10-11:30 am Alaska Standard Time/2-3:30 pm Eastern Standard Time in a Webinar sponsored by the Management Assistance Team, a program of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

For a more in-depth exploration of how to be more Leopoldian, check out the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s excellent two-day Land Ethic Leaders workshop designed to “equip participants with tools to both introduce Leopold’s land ethic to a wider audience and also to deepen understanding and engagement through dialog about the meaning and value of conservation.”

As always, I look forward to your comments, questions and observations. If you have believe these conversations are important, I encourage you to subscribe, engage and share.

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