Sunday, 18 May 2008

The crucial role of inspirational and powerful leaders in conservation

What makes conservation work? Among all the many questions that conservationists want answered, this one is at the heart of our day-to-day work. We invest endlessly, try countless strategies, develop the most intricate tools for planning and analysis, but our successes are limited—at least in places like Borneo where forests are still disappearing at an alarming rate.

Still the successes are there. They are often small, easily overlooked and they don’t even get that much attention. The Wehea area in East Kalimantan, Indonesia is one of them. I recently heard a story about the customary law leader of the Wehea people, Mr. Let Djitaq preventing the entry of illegal loggers into Wehea, despite their significant bribery efforts. Let Djitaq has been a driving force behind the crucial community involvement and support in Wehea’s protection. In fact, it seems that this one man was critical to Wehea’s success.

I know several additional examples from Kalimantan and other places in the world where conservation successes depended to a very great extent on the vision and commitment of only one or two people. Successes in those projects did not depend on large amounts of funding. But they were determined by a single-mindedness and a never-say-die attitude, with which not even the most forceful Bruce Willis movies can compete. (I thought of Bruce Willis after watching Live Free or Die Hard: “Matt Farrell (Justin Long, the computer guy): "You just killed that helicopter with a car." McClane (Bruce Willis): "I was out of bullets.")

This raises the question of how important such charismatic and powerful leaders are in conservation. A quick search in my trusted science databases on various combinations of “conservation”, “leader”, “leadership” revealed only one slightly relevant publication about leadership in the US forest service. Apparently, this issue is not much studied. I wonder why.

Maybe the cult of personage does not suit today’s scientific frame of mind from which much conservation thinking seems to derive. We do our thing, because we are confident that there is a need for conservation that should be obvious to everyone. After all the facts are there to see.

Or maybe we think that conservation success requires people with good management skills, good financial insights and a talent for lobbying, or those who can talk to the media and spin a good story.

We need to give this some more thought. What key elements do our inspirational leaders bring to the table? The ones I have met are all original and visionary thinkers. They know what they want and they know how to get there. And they can communicate this and make others listen. They understand the system in which they work and know how to manipulate it. And they all share a more or less spiritual love for the natural world.

They also have something else in common: There is generally little love lost between them and the conservation establishment.

I wonder whether we underestimate the role of inspirational and committed leadership? I think that we need to look harder for champions of conservation and honour their achievements. And we need to know more. What role do these people play in conservation success? How many projects would not have failed if the right leader had been in place. And where do you find such leaders? Can we test job applicants for senior positions for their visionary leadership abilities?

They may not be the easiest people to work with, and they may often disagree with us. Their single-mindedness knows no bounds and they will scathingly critical of shortcomings in conservation. But this may still not be a reason to keep out of their way. I believe conservation NGOs should stimulate out-of-the-box thinking, even if it works against us once in a while. We need those women and men who can stand up in front of a crowd and pronounce without blushing that "they had a dream”.

Our champions may be a lot more relevant in conservation success than we recognize at the moment. We don’t have a strategy for inspirational leadership. I think we need one.

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