What is leadership, anyways?
It’s not a title or a position. It’s about stepping over a threshold. It’s about making a difference in your own life, the lives of others, in your community or organization, or in the world at large. It’s about living and acting by example and in turn, affecting others.
I took an hour’s bike ride along the Potomac River for my lunch break yesterday, needing to shift my energy and task focus. I don’t usually have the luxury of taking an entire hour off, let alone hopping on my bike to ride the C & O River Trail. As I walked out the door, the warm, muggy air enveloped me. “Ugh, summer is keeping its warm, humid grip on this city”, I thought. I tried not to let this primal reaction about the weather spill over into the way I was feeling – stifled!
I welcomed the humidity and soft high-70’s temp as a big gust of wind reminded me to keep balanced on my bike. The warm, muggy breeze felt great on my skin – in stark contrast to the stark sanitized feeling of the AC in the office. I started down the trail picking up speed as the sights of fall took over. A vibrant-leafed tree here, a boring brown one there. A squirrel scurrying across the bike path that I swerved to miss. What’s that movement in the brush over there? Oh wow, it’s a deer – no, two – no, three – slowly grazing on leaves and giving me that deer stare as I pass by on my bike. Why is the light off the Potomac shimmering so vibrantly? Ah yes, the current is running out against the wind. A flock of small brown birds suddenly change direction mid-flight and land in the trees right above me, chirping in surround sound broken only by the crunch of dried leaves under my bike tires. “Focus on where you’re going, focus!”
Leadership in Balance
The sensory immersion that I experienced is one of the effects that being out in the natural world provides for us humans. It takes us out of the cognitive mode of directed attention that we tend to overuse with tasks and colleagues, and forces us to use involuntary attention, as I demonstrated above taking you with me on my bike ride.
The original humans survived by their use of involuntary attention, hunting for food, and avoiding becoming someone else’s prey! Scanning the environment and attending to diverse input is one of the leadership benefits of nature. Time away from technology is another.
How many times have you had tunnel vision and been blind-sided by a “surprising” business development? You would have been better prepared if you had immersion time in nature.
Since nature-based leadership development (NBLD) emerged in 2005 with the founding of the Center for Nature and Leadership, people in various walks of life have experienced creative shifts of awareness, focus and action in their personal and professional leadership.
Nature-based leadership development is the merging of leading-edge leadership development and positive psychology, mindfulness and ecopsychology practices, and sensory immersion in natural settings. Its intellectual foundation is the biophilia hypothesis that suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.
It’s no secret that the best leaders feel an instinctive bond between themselves and their cause or team. NBLD takes the perspective that biophilia is an appropriate starting point for human leadership, especially in today’s world. The bottom line is that relationships are key.
The better we are with seeing the larger, systemic, community or earth-based relationships in our actions, the more effective those actions will be with all stakeholders. Likewise, the more skilled that we become in awareness of the multi-level relationships and the reciprocal interactions we experience as individuals or teams, the more effective our actions will be.
And finally, on a personal level, the more that we train ourselves to excel in the four ways of knowing – rational, physical, spiritual and emotional – the more skilled and effective our personal leadership will be.
The promise of nature-based leadership development is that a person’s skills, talents and life experience can come together in a unique and powerful blend of passion, purpose and excellence. Now that you know the promise of NBLD, here’s how the actual practice comes together.
The Roots of NBLD – The Creative Combustion of Disparate Fields
It’s no secret that one of the effects of increasing urbanization is that our five senses are dulling. Light pollution blocks the majesty of the stars. Sound pollution overrides the natural, wild sounds of birdcalls and the wind blowing through the trees. It’s no wonder that we humans flock to urban water features and fountains.
The built environment is replacing rough, natural features for our hands and feet with smooth sameness. We’re also losing the sense of awe and reverence of our place in the natural world with more and more built landscapes. Without awe and reverence, where do humans connect with things larger than themselves?
What is the sensory link to leadership? As human beings, our bodies were naturally designed to sense and perceive a diverse cacophony of information presented in the form of movement, color, and sound. However, our modern professional and education-based culture primarily emphasizes and rewards with language-based information. It seems that as a species, we’re increasingly evolving to become giant minds on relatively unused bodies! Pioneers like Richard Louv popularized this problem, and others such as Jon Young and John P. Milton have translated indigenous and ancient Eastern sensory and spiritual practices for our western, urban culture.
The Bottom Line: By providing time and structured activities in nature, NBLD reawakens human senses, cultivates personal knowledge in the four ways of knowing and directs this new intelligence to inform our personal and professional lives.
Ecopsychology and Mindfulness
Where sensory awareness focuses on our relationship with the outer world, ecopsychology and mindfulness practices direct attention to our inner world. Ecopsychology is the study of the relationship between human beings and the natural world through ecological and psychological principles. Its primary use has been with individuals in therapeutic or wilderness settings with the goal of greater effectiveness in daily life or soul-based work with the goal of human wholeness and identification of a person’s true gifts for the world. For more information on soul-based work exclusively, consult the Animas Valley Institute or the School of Lost Borders.
Mindfulness, or attentiveness to the present, and meditation practice has been proven to reduce stress and increase intelligence and creativity (Scientific American, Nov. 2014).
The Bottom Line: NBLD borrows information and practices from four shields and soulcraft work, and combines it with mindfulness techniques to create shifts in awareness and perception through group and solo time on the land. We then guide people to use this experience to inspire and inform their personal leadership work.
Leading Edge Leadership Practices
Currently, four leadership development theories inform nature-based leadership development.
Cultivating emotional intelligence (EI) leadership competencies is key. Emotional intelligence is relational, first with self-management, and then with social awareness. Its value to the work is obvious. If you can’t manage yourself, you won’t be able to manage and relate to others.
Positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. We have found that nature-based immersion reawakens the natural stewardship of life that is found within each one of us. The practices of positive psychology awakens our natural love of life while NBLD helps directs the urge to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives for self and others.
The leadership implications of the systems-thinking work of Donella Meadows & Peter Senge is also foundational to NBLD. Meadows primer on systems thinking opened the field to practitioners, and Senge’s work continues to demonstrate the impact of systems thinking on personal and organizational learning. In short, systems thinking trains people to think in ever-widening circles, and Senge’s organizational learning work teaches us to identify and use the relationships between these ever-widening circles to create desired effects. These are both critical leadership skills for the new economy.
Finally, Scharmer’s ground-breaking work on Theory U, stating that the quality of the results that we create in any kind of social system is a function of the quality of awareness, attention, or consciousness that the participants in the system operate from, links systems-thinking back full circle to the sensory awareness of individuals.
The Bottom Line: In NBLD, these four theories and related skills are selectively combined to serve the unique leadership needs of each person, working in concert with the shifts in awareness that ecopsychology, mindfulness and sensory practices creates.
How would you recognize nature-based leadership development if you saw it?
You’d see individuals alone in nature cultivating their natural birthright as sensing human beings aware of their surroundings.
You’d see a group of people sitting outside holding a council, learning new ways to listen, understand and be understood.
You’d see people working online, alone and together, deepening into leadership theories by applying them to their own challenges and organizational settings, using a combination of self-directed learning and outside coaching.
But, most of all, you’d see people learning to thrive in their personal journeys to make the world a better place. We call these people ChangeMakers. Perhaps, you are one yourself?