Over ten years ago now I graduated with a Second-Class Bachelor of Science (with Honours) from the University of Edinburgh: Ecological Science (Conservation & Management). If you had asked me on my graduation day what I would be doing now, I would have said I’d be spending my days completely immersed in nature; my boots would be worn and muddy, binoculars would be fused round my neck, and my face would be weathered. My dream job was to work on a project, perhaps a re–introduction or something similarly exciting. Back then, it was already clear that the state of nature was on a downward spiral, and I wanted to help put things right at a grass-roots level. I still do.
I had no idea that it would be another skill set that would land me my first job in conservation and that role would evolve in to others of the same ilk; my qualifications (whilst hugely important) would come to bolster but not define my future roles. As a result, my career path took me in an unexpected direction, one which involves spending more time with people than with wildlife. In the present my boots are muddy, my binoculars are never far away, and like many conservationists I can say I have a specialism – it’s just that in my case it’s homo sapiens (or as I like to think of it, potential conservationists) and I am achieving my original dream but through my work with others. I hasten to add that I’ve probably achieved more than I could have done by myself at this point in my career.
My strengths lie in community engagement. I have an affinity for building positive and effective relationships with those around me. I see my purpose as empowering others and to inspire social change. I’m an educator, an ambassador, a “grass-roots community organiser”, a storyteller, partnership forger, fundraiser, recruiter, volunteer manager, networker, communicator, goodwill builder and a conservationist.
I… am a leader.
Yet I’m not a chief executive or a manager, and I’ve only ever line managed one person at a time. I’m not well known on social media or in real life – I don’t have a following. I’m not extraordinary or perfect by any means. However, I have spent the last ten years working on projects which inspire and empower others to make positive change for wildlife in the UK and I have worked with thousands of people from a variety of backgrounds and organisations along the way – including hundreds of volunteers. And, whilst I received no accolades (nor do I want to), I’ve been relatively successful and as a result I have made a difference in my own way, and I’ve helped others make a difference too.
Effective leadership is an essential skill for any conservationist, at any level of the hierarchy. No matter your role, you are going to need to balance your natural history knowledge and practical experience with your people skills, you too will need to be all of those things I listed above (us conservationists really do have our work cut out!). Nature conservation organisations are hugely reliant on the goodwill of others – people from all walks of life who help and support our work through volunteering, becoming members, spreading the word in the media, providing financial support, wildlife-friendly land management, lobbying politicians, re-wilding their gardens, taking part in surveys and undertaking a whole array of conservation-related tasks. They are invaluable and without them, we simply couldn’t achieve what “we” do. And thinking about the bigger picture – at such a crucial time for nature conservation, the more people we have “on our side” the greater the chance we have of changing things for the better. But to achieve this we have to be able to convince others to see our point of view and we must endeavour to understand theirs; they must be inspired and feel empowered to act. We need people to want to help us and we need to be able to help them help us.
I believe that it is the way we engage others that is key to changing attitudes towards protecting wildlife and wild places around the world. My small successes bear testament to the leadership training I was fortunate to undertake early on in my career and the ongoing support of an inspirational leadership guide, Barry Dore. Before I undertook this training, I did not see myself as a leader, but it transformed the way I viewed my role and the role effective leadership plays in every working relationship I have encountered since. There is a stigma attached to this topic, a perception that it is cheesy, that this sort of training is for the pen-pushers and the higher-level managers and that it’s not relevant to those at the front line of conservation. But cast those assumptions aside for just a second and remind yourself why you wanted to work in nature conservation in the first place… I’m confident that somewhere in the answer lies your wish to make a difference, to help avert the ecological crisis we face, and to make the world a better place. You might even have included inspiring others in there somewhere too.
I would argue that just by having the desire to achieve this you have unconsciously already begun your leadership journey. So don’t wait until you become a line manager or team leader to think about how to get the best out of those around you, work on developing those skills alongside all the others because you will be surrounded by people with the potential to help you make the world a better place every single day for the rest of your life. And because you can have perfect grades and you can have all the experience imaginable, but your success is going to depend on your ability to influence people in the right way.
You don’t need to be attributed a title to be a leader so, I implore you to use your influence as wisely as your knowledge and skills, to rewild attitudes as well as landscapes and to count the potential conservationists around you as well as the wildlife.
You are a leader, and you can make a difference.