Cultivating our next generation of environmental leaders

What is leadership and why does it matter to us?

The first cohort of EDG’s new leadership program.

The first cohort of EDG’s new leadership program.

Forbes Magazine contributor Kevin Kruse recently defined leadership as “a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” ( 2013). This broad definition matches the aim of the new environmental leadership program being implemented by the EDG. The program has been titled: empowering leadership for impact.

Around the world, academic institutions are increasing investments in specialized leadership development as a means to enhance training for their students. For example, since 2007 the University of Cambridge has created a Master’s degree in Conservation Leadership and Harvard’s Business School has introduced field learning in MBA leadership training. For those engaged specifically in higher degrees in the conservation science sector, leadership has been identified as a critical skill for having influence (Manolis et al 2008, Dietz et al 2004). This is supported by evidence that successful conservation projects have been positively correlated with effective leadership (Black et al 2011).

Why a new program?

The idea for creating a leadership program within EDG was generated at the 2013 CEED Biannual Conference at the University of Queensland. A small group of participants with a keen interest in the principles and practice of leadership formed a focus group to explore the topic in depth, discussing personal experiences and brainstorming ideas about how this important area could be examined further in the CEED network. Thus the seed for this enterprise was first planted by CEED. Since most leadership programs are located in Europe and the US, or run through private sector companies, creating an opportunity for EDG students and staff in this hemisphere was deemed important.

What does the program look like?

Following an initial scoping process, the program has been designed in its pilot year (2014-2015) to comprise a 15-person cohort including PhD students in their second year and postdocs representing almost all EDG nodes. This audience was selected because the timing of training should benefit their career options shortly after completion of the program. A survey of existing leadership programs in Australia and overseas, most with an environmental focus, was conducted to learn about what has worked well in various situations and to gain advice from those already experienced in leadership training. The EDG program aims to maintain a balance between the theories and practice of environmental leadership development, and flexibility for participants already committed to their studies. The first cohort began their program with a week of intensive leadership training in November 2014. The rest of the year will entail additional gatherings of the cohort, focused skill training events, and cohort-designed activities that foster team leadership development as well as personalized action plans for self-assessment and growth.

In July 2014, we visited three U.S. academic institutions (University of Minnesota, Harvard University, and Stanford University) to examine their programs in greater depth, explore potential partnerships, and gain insights for EDG’s leadership program. These schools were selected based on the difference in their approaches to leadership development and their enthusiasm for exchanging knowledge and experience. While each program varies according to audience, structure and investment of time and resources (see Table 1), there are similarities in strategies and cross-cutting themes. For example, all programs include skills training that is technical (eg, presentations) and soft (eg, negotiation skills) in nature. Utilizing trust and activities for teambuilding, using multi-disciplinary approaches particularly from the social sciences, applying principles of design thinking, and considering the importance of evaluation are other core aspects in common. Each of the programs is responsive to the needs of participants and open to evolving as a result. The EDG leadership program is exploring a range of insights gained from these sources, particularly the importance of a cohort approach where multiple, structured gatherings and small-team engagement will be used to build trust and personal accountability.

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The value of leadership

Each of the reviewed programs exhibits characteristics that demonstrate the value of leadership development. Benefits to existing students at the University of Minnesota include opportunities to meet a range of colleagues from across disciplines, advise the program’s direction, and receive hands-on training sessions, such as working with media, where skills are utilized immediately in practice. Because Stanford’s program is targeted to high-achieving environmental researchers, it largely leverages the determination and drive exhibited by its fellows, almost all of whom have reached tenure prior to participation. The influence of this program on other institutions is evident, with Minnesota’s Boreas program having been started by a former Leopold fellow. Connections are paramount. The quality of Harvard’s alumni network demonstrates the value of connections in the delivery and success of training; funding and field opportunities for leadership development arise directly from this network. As a result of the FIELD leadership training, professional staff have already found that second-year MBA students are better at collaborative work in teams and possess the interpersonal skills necessary for future employment. Harvard has also recently developed a Business and Environment Initiative as a means to increase its work in this interdisciplinary field. It is a member of the Network for Business Sustainability, an international network of business leaders and academic experts focused on responsible management practices and research. CEED has recently acquired membership in this network in partnership with the UQ School of Business.

Leadership Links

University of Minnesota Boreas Leadership Program

Stanford University’s Leopold Leadership Program

Harvard University Business and Environment Initiative

Harvard University Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD) program,

East West Center Asia Pacific Leadership Program

My engagement with leadership

The content and structure of this EDG program has been largely informed by my own experience in the Asia Pacific Leadership Program at the East West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, now in its 14th year. In 2009, I took a 5-month sabbatical from my work at the United Nations Environment-Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre to engage as a fellow in the selective and residential leadership program, which hosted 40 members from over 20 countries. During the program, my research focused on developing a regional approach to marine conservation in the Pacific, which has since become a global undertaking by the Convention on Biological Diversity through regional workshops. Five years later, lessons gained from the program remain a significant influence on my career and continues to provide strong relationships with former fellows around the globe.

More info: Colleen Corrigan


Black et al. (2011). Leadership and conservation effectiveness: finding a better way to lead. Conservation Letters 4: 329-339.

Dietz et al. (2004). Defining Leadership in Conservation: a View from the Top. Conservation Biology. 18: 274-278. 2013. What is Leadership?

Manolis et al. (2008). Leadership: a new frontier in conservation science. Conservation Biology 23: 879-886.

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