Conservation does not happen within a vacuum. There is a complex web of socio-ecological interactions between humans and the environment within which they reside. Over the past four decades or so, natural resource management practitioners and researchers have realized how important it is to understand the human dimension in order to achieve conservation goals and bring about meaningful change.
Although it is widely accepted that conservation successes are rooted in great leadership, the study of leadership and the human-social dimension has been lacking within the conservation industry as a whole. Studies on human behaviour, sociology, and psychology is steeped in over six decades of research, theorems, models, and studies, yet the assimilation of these conclusions into conservation has not been applied effectively. The term “conservation leadership” is in itself filled with a lack of shared understanding. Non-conservation human behavioral studies have been seriously under-utilized in the conservation world until recently.
History will chronicle 2020-2021 as the years the world stopped in an unprecedented manner. Across the globe, countries shut down, roads were quiet, trains stayed in their stations, aeroplanes were grounded, and city streets were emptied of people. There is no doubt that in the not-too-distant future it will become a case study for many reasons. Economies were decimated, and in the conservation world, that is always disastrous. As an industry, conservation struggles to be a business in a business-orientated world. It all too often depends on state funding, donors, or both. When the economy is hit, so is conservation.
However, challenging times create opportunities for creative leadership. In the post-Covid world, leaders across all spectrums will be facing challenges that will require skillful and creative interventions. The ramifications of extended lockdowns are yet unknown. Low-income communities have been, and continue to be, hardest hit. In the meantime, while the human world grumbled and lurched to a halt, pollution levels worldwide dropped, and the natural world took an un-masked deep breath.
As the pandemic ravaged lives and economies around the globe, all other issues, including conservation, took a distant backseat. This has been a very dark time in social history, yet at the same time, history shows us that even in the most difficult times, leadership and vision can still ensure success, transformation and bring about ecological change.
During the Great Depression in 1933, the then President of the United States, Franklin D Roosevelt, established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). His aim was not specifically conservation related, to be honest, it was undoubtedly more focussed on creating jobs for millions of out of work Americans, but the CCC worked on environmental projects that hitherto had not been prioritised. The project, nicknamed Roosevelts Tree Army, not only helped people in terms of economic and social recovery, but also made lasting contributions to forest management, flood control, and the development of American national parks.
When he was lobbying to pass the bill to create the CCC Roosevelt referred to America’s forests as “the lungs of our land which purify our air”. He was not wrong, in times of hardship; nature is where we turn for inspiration and comfort.
Too many of conservation organisations, both private and public, are failing to achieve their full potential; managerial shortcomings and a lack of strategic thinking are holding them back. Overcoming these weaknesses and improving leadership and management capability is fundamental to creating a culture where more conservation businesses have the ambition, confidence, resilience and skills to respond to the current economic challenges. Allowing them to compete successfully both nationally and globally.
Part of the shift that conservation organisations have to make is the realisation that understanding people is pivotal to their success as a business, and conservation organisations have to embrace the business side of their profile in order to survive. It is humans who work for, visit, and contribute (in many ways) to conservation successes and it is humans who need to bring about the change required to fight global environmental issues.
The college has always understood this link, and has included modules in all its programmes that teach our students leadership skills, human resource strategy, conflict management, and culturally sensitive and sustainable use of resources. Without understanding the socio-ecological and socio-economic interactions, and managing and capitalising on these, conservation leaders will struggle to bring about the changes they hope to make.
The most important asset any employer has is their employees. If they wish to bring about change, they need to start within their own organisations, ensuring their own employees understand what conservation and sustainable use of resources is, why it is important, and how every single employee, at every level – as individuals and as a collective – can make a difference.
Start now. Sign up for a leadership course, develop your leadership skills, learn from the past and see what has worked and why, become the flexible, reactive, strategic, and adaptive leader you want to be. More than ever the world needs leaders from within conservation businesses to step up, step out, and be counted. In a special and specialised industry, it is time to realise how much depends on leadership, human dynamics, social interaction and inclusiveness.
Bruyere, B.L. (2015) Giving direction and clarity to conservation leadership. Conservation Letters, 8, 378–382 https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/conl.12174
Dietz, J.M., Aviram, R., Bickford, S., Douthwaite, K., Goodstine, A., Izursa, J. et al. (2004) Defining leadership in conservation: a view from the top. Conservation Biology, 18, 274–278 https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00554.x
Case, P., Evans, L.S., Fabinyi, M., Cohen, P.J., Hicks, C.C., Prideaux, M. et al. (2015) Rethinking environmental leadership: the social construction of leaders and leadership in discourses of ecological crisis, development, and conservation. Leadership, 11, 396–423 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1742715015577887