“Outstanding leaders have a good moral compass. They know where they have come from, they know where they are going —and they know why.” ~ Al Gini and Ronald M. Green
Leading a Nature tour, a wildlife volunteer project or a conservation citizen science study are wonderful opportunities to inspire proper environmental behavior. Besides educating and inspiring, it is critical to ensure the safety and security of both the people we lead, and the habitat and species we are protecting. Being an inspirational and ethical leader requires that we are prepared and that we embrace and share a clear Nature code of conduct.
In short, as a leader always keep in mind that our personal code of conduct, aligned with our values system, shapes the minds of onlookers. Lead by example… and help shape our future leaders.
Here are some key leadership values worth embracing: Vision – Passion – Commitment – Reliability – Humility – Open-mindedness – Kindness – Cohesiveness – Knowledge & Communication.
Have a clarity of purpose and communicate it. Share your organization’s mission & vision and do it often.
A clear vision grabs people. A strong vision creates energy. Then once that vision is shared by all the members of a group, it makes the group feel part of ‘it’. A clear vision brings meaning and standards to volunteers and travelers; it mobilizes them to action, and helps them decide what to do and what not to do in the course of their experience and their conservation & sustainable Life in general.
In other words, a great vision compels people to do something, change something, and become something. That vision can then live & subsist beyond the boundary of the volunteering project or the visited venue.
Inspire others with your passion… wisely.
Passion sounds like a buzz word, but in conservation this is a driver. And for its leaders it is a necessity.
To infuse a conservation mind in our short-attention-span and disconnected society is hard enough. Tourists, wildlife viewers get easily excited with wildlife animals and quickly confuse nature with pet and entertainment. But if there is one quality that has a chance to inspire and redirect a misled guest is “passion”.
Passion is not about excitement or intensity, it’s about conviction. It is about us being sure that preserving the environment prevails over satisfying unreasonable tourist or volunteer whim, as it often happens in safari when guests harass a too accommodating guide to get always closer so that he/she can get that ‘close’ shot, that selfie…
Being a passionate leader is a vehicle that allows us to reconnect people with one another and wildlife. Get a bored and dispassionate leader and it is guaranteed that the eco tour, the volunteering mission will not have a lasting effect at all – the total opposite of what a conservation venue ought to be.
Demonstrate a consistent and authentic commitment to the cause at all times.
The authenticity of our commitment is key, as one of our roles as leaders is to inspire so as to foster conservation ethics. If we are not genuine in our motivations, intentions and what we communicate, our audience will catch that. It is in the human nature to constantly determine whether or not the person we are interacting with is authentic, even more so when that person has a leadership role. We assess to find the right person to follow.
Be worthy of reliance and trust; People and wildlife depend on it.
Whether you lead a tour or coach a citizen science project in the wilderness –and maybe there in the wild more than anywhere else– people need to depend upon you under all circumstances.
Being dependable is a contributing factor to the credibility of the venue and the security of your guests and volunteers. This means specifically being predictable, accountable, composed, in control, fair, exhibiting good energy while being relaxed. It also subsumes being prepared, organized, knowledgeable, and paying attention to results. As well as it means being able to make ethical justifiable decisions in all circumstances and tough decisions when necessary.
⚠ An example comes to mind to raise the importance of reliability. A few years back, on one of the toughest Himalayan treks in Bhutan, a European-led expedition could have gone very bad. The very knowledgeable leader (European herself) had one issue: she was an inexperienced and weak leader. Somehow the strong-willed and very fit trekkers decided that they knew more than the leader and started to override her authority. Dissensions grew within the team itself and soon there were 2 opposite sides. This expedition trek at times at very high and dangerous altitudes, with passes at 5000 meters. The arguments led to some of the trekkers hiking on their own on a few occasions on the dangerous slopes of these mountains. The expedition even lost a satellite phone during that month on one of those unexpected split hikes! Neither the leader nor the sherpas were reliable enough to overcome that mutiny rooted in the incredible arrogance of the guests who felt entitled to behave the way they did, perhaps considering that their money gave them the right to do so. This could have ended very tragically if one of the trekkers had fallen. Levels of fitness would have had nothing to do with it, but unfamiliarity with that habitat/terrain would. Unlikely? Think twice: That same trek a few years earlier lost a member on one of these slopes, and by loss here we mean death…
Value the deed itself, do not use it as a vehicle for fame or self-aggrandizement. Be humble.
As a conservation leader, our role is to drive the attention on the importance of the deed itself, and raise awareness about the crucial value of the place you are visiting.
We make mistakes. We all do –leaders included. How many times have we forgotten to remain quiet in a wild habitat, therefore disrupting the dynamic of the place and distressing its inhabitants . How many times as leaders have we got our guests or volunteers too close to wildlife, inducing unnecessary stress in that wildlife and even sometimes jeopardizing the security of both wildlife and our companions [7,8]. When those mistakes happen we should simply raise the attention on them, apologize and explain why this was wrong so that everybody can benefit from that mistake and learn to avoid it in the future.
⚠ Once, during a field assistance work in Costa Rica, we were capturing data to evaluate the fitness of a piece of the cloud forest as an habitat for big cats. Every time we went out in the field we ended up having to be reminded to remain quiet. Most of us could not. It was obvious that the volunteers did not realize how unnaturally loud we now are. In our modern societies, we live in a hyper excited world, where emotions are conveyed loudly even ‘screamingly’ as when few of the young volunteers expressed themselves when discovering a new bug or alike. In our cities, there is a constant ambient noise, including mechanical noises and loud music. So as to counteract this volume increase, it is understandable that we became louder –even some city birds now sing louder than before so as to compensate and try to go about their lives with their own kind. So, we speak louder, we laugh louder, we even walk louder. We also have a hard time to stop talking: gossiping away on and off trails –scaring any wildlife in our vicinity– is now the norm. The impact on the natural habitat is much worse than we think, and certainly when it comes to wild cats. They are elusive –you don’t see them. If the area is disrupted by our noise, then they will avoid that area, even leave that area for good as being unsuitable, and therefore defeating the purpose of the work assessing the suitability of the habitat. There is a lot of retraining to do so that we fit better with our environment, and this starts with the noise we generate…
Have a mind opened by wonder rather than closed by belief.
Being receptive to new ideas, accepting feedback, makes us more flexible and patient, and foster a team more adaptive to changes, more resilient, more confident. It promotes creative thinking, intellectual and practical excellence. Our conservation enterprise then becomes the perfect terrain to break silos and solve problem better and faster.
Being open-minded allows us leaders to be more alert to opportunities for learning from our guests and volunteers, and therefore to be more efficient and effective conservationists.
⚠ A fun little episode comes to mind. On that big cat (data) tracking mission in a Costa Rican cloud forest, we ended up capturing the paw print of a big cat indeed. Now how do you make a cast in such a wet environment? Cloud forests are named this way because of the clouds that drip through them. Nothing really dries there, and certainly not wet plaster. So doing it as right as possible from when mixing that paster is key for getting an identifiable cast. One of us was a sculptor. The leader who knew this jumped at the opportunity. And then the sculptor improved on the cast-molding process the leader had followed until then. The collaboration, led to a great cast and then a clear identification of what was a puma! Who would have thought that art could be handy somewhere in the middle of a forest of dripping trees under torrential rains?…
Care about others. Balance your emotions with a sense of justice and fairness.
All relationships are built on two foundational concepts: empathy and trust. If either is missing, the relationship either fails to progress, or ends completely. Sincerity is vital to communicating empathy – if I do not believe you’re being sincere when saying that you can appreciate my perspective, trust is unlikely to follow . In short, kindness amounts to caring genuinely about the people, where ‘caring’ embraces listening, being respectful and fair, being accepting, approachable and friendly.
All these characteristics do not mean being accommodating or accepting of bad behavior. Outstanding caring leaders must also be willing to call on followers for misbehavior in order to inspire trust.
Leaders who demonstrate compassion and care are often perceived as charismatic.
Foster shared values and loyalty within your team.
You are passionate, reliable, humble, open-minded and kind, then what comes next is to spread these qualities within the team itself so that you can rely later on a strong group who values mutualism over individualism. This is making your team a cohesive unit.
Emulating a cohesive team enables a smoother, more-effective communication. When working toward a common goal, individual team members bring varied skills and points of view to the project. Group members can fill in for each other’s lack of knowledge or shortage of skill, they watch each other’s back. And this unity, in unexpected situations in the wilderness, is crucial. Indeed the trust and complementarity of a well run team allow for very quick responses when facing danger.
Creative a cohesive team requires the leader to be alert and recognize negative situations that damage the team spirit, and rectify them immediately.
A cohesive team is not about blind conformity, it is about a shared code of conduct, compassion and trust and taking full advantages of our complementary skills, while knowing the weaknesses of each.
A cohesive team is about the whole being bigger than the sum of the parts.
⚠ An example of lack of cohesiveness happened once on our watch. We were in Africa, giving a hand in guarding and monitoring black rhinos to keep them safe from poachers. The team was a mix of generations from the Western world. A couple of brash young ladies had taken upon themselves to single out an older couple in a passive-aggressive way. Interestingly that older couple was not a shy couple, but yet each time they were victims of rudeness they did let it fly. There was a discernible tension growing, yet the young soft leader, a true man from the bush with a big heart, did nothing to stop the escalation of bad energy. We had to intervene, and one night, we took advantage of a quiet moment with these 2 young girls to tell them straight that they were bullies. It chocked them and they rebelled, and then we explain what bullies do. Here is the thing: bullies are ‘cool’ and often do not grasp that they are bullying. The tension finally decreased, and an healthier work ensued. The leader should have done something about it, but he was faulty of another thing: being unfair. Age-wise he was closer to the 2 young girls, and the 3 of them had become buddies. Doing so, he became blind to the misbehaviors of his 2 friends regarding the older guests. In fort, although a very nice young lad at heart: he treated the members of his team differently (discrimination), which led to unfairness and then disrespect. There was no sense of cohesiveness within the team, which impacted the work, the spirit, the experience and the security of the mission.
Educate, communicate the value of the mission and the importance of conservation.
And do it constantly, relentlessly while learning, deepening your knowledge and self-improving. That moment when you lead that tour or volunteer mission is the time you can spread the word, gain allies, make people understand the importance of what conservation is. Part of our duties as conservation leaders is to be an advocate for the preservation of Nature. This is the time when we can discuss, debate, find ways and alternatives together to spread the facts, the knowledge, the respect of nature,with your travel companions or fellow volunteers, and so that we grow into a community of people who care and want to improve what is in disarray. That tour, that project is the time when we can foster actions of the people who surround us, actions can then persist longer in time rather than being anecdotal blips in their lives.
This importance of educating and communicating therefore should not stop after the travelers or the volunteers left. Following up later with the group we led, with our volunteers can have such a lasting impact. If we can be personal rather than just relying on sending an automatic newsletter, we should do it. Reach out to the ones who displayed the most interest and energy: If you have inspired this volunteer, being personal is the best way to reaffirm your message and your authenticity.
 10 Virtues of Outstanding Leaders. Gini Al. & Green R.M. (2013)
 The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. Lencioni P. (2002)
 How a Caring Leader can Create a Culture of Support. Pickard, S. Brandman University.
 Leadership and conservation effectiveness: finding a better way to lead. Simon A. Black, Jim J. Groombridge, & Carl G. Jones (2011).
 The Importance of Vision. Evolution Training.
 The Biological Effects of Noise on Wildlife. AcousticEcology.org (2001)
 Get your ‘Bear’ings & Keep your Distance. Earthwise Aware (2015)
 A Herd of Elephants and a Gaggle of People. Earthwise Aware (2015)
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Note that this Etiquette is and will remain a work in progress. If there is anything else you would like to see added, please let us know and we’ll do our best to include it. Let’s be Earthwise Aware. Let’s enjoy and protect wildlife responsibly! Thanks for your support!