About leadership and institutional efficiency (II): conservation effectiveness

by Tibor Hartel

Biological conservation is mostly done by different organizations and institutions. Some of them are more efficient than others (e.g. in species and habitat recovery projects, in managing conflicts between various stakeholders) – and leadership is a key feature in this respect. After the Porras lecture about leadership a good friend sent me a recent paper by Simon Black and his colleagues published in Conservation Letters (2011). This paper is a review, and presents the main features of a good leadership for a conservation organization / institution. Below some important points of this paper are presented.

Species conservation programs have some characteristics which need to be considered by conservation leaders: (i) species and habitat restoration programs can require decades to achieve – therefore long term vision is needed to address this. But various species (populations) and communities are characterized by short term cycles, often with wide short term fluctuations. This need to be considered when searching for funding and implementing various conservation activities. For example, populations fluctuate because of a number of natural and human induced factors. Often natural and human causes of population fluctuations are hard to separate. Is a three year increase in population size after a management intervention enough to conclude that the intervention was successful? Or if the contrary happens (i.e. population size decreases), is that enough to conclude that the conservation implication was unsuccessful? Moreover, spatial aspects are also important: how important are the source populations in the surrounding landscape for the maintenance of a local population? (ii) Work is made by people: mixed academic and non academic persons. Therefore species and habitat restoration programs have strong social dimensions (see also Jim Manolis and his colleagues work in Conservation Biology, 2009). Divergences may exist both within groups and among them. This need to be tackled and combined in a way to achieve the maximum outcome. (iii) There is a large degree of unpredictability of conservation programs – e.g. because ecological systems are open systems. For example, the success of a wetland restoration can be influenced by the amount of rain. Moreover, politics may have an influence on the organization and conservation programs – often with bad consequences. (iv) Often conservation programs involve trans-country border partnerships. Western organizations may have different ways to approach and deal with problems than eastern organizations. This may result in potential conflictual situations.

Conservation programs may be complicated by various (some may look minor) aspects, overlooked by conservation leaders. For example the extensive bureaucratic structures, not sharing information in timely manner, rigid people management and failure to play to people’s strengths within the team, failure to learn or seek advice, or conversely inappropriately delegating decisions to outsiders.

Successful conservation programs have some traits like: (i) consider the natural history of species and spatio-temporal dynamic of populations, communities and habitats. These data can be collected from historical or other sources and on the way of implementing the project. (ii) Having a team of high performance experts and high work standards. (iii) Learning from failures in order to improve the program. ‘…if you celebrate failure in the right way, you’ll get more wins.’ (Dan Rockwell). (iv) Learning from other programs, (v) project a long term view and consider that species restoration programs often need decades rather than just few years. (vi) Encourage sharing and learning between key players. (vii) Manage the partners (small and large NGO`s, other institutions) in a clever and creative way.

Some key qualities of a good conservation leader are:

Ability to share a clear, long term vision. This vision should be simple to understand and easy to be defined by clear, short term achievable goals.

Orientation toward ‘hands on’ management. A leader should know the strengths and weaknesses of the team and how to manage it to maximize efficiency. A leader should be able to encourage celebration of success and to ensure that constructive lessons are learned after failures. Should be able to adapt organizational dynamic according to the new challenges which may appear during a restoration work.

Ability to switch attention between wider context and details. A leader needs to be able to prioritize interventions according to the available information about the ecological system subjected to the management activities and different spatial scales.

Willingness to encourage learning, improvement and receptiveness to alternative solutions. A good leader needs to encourage members of the organization to gather and use knowledge (important for program’s purpose) in a creative and innovative way in order to continuously improve results. Although failures are inevitable, a leader need to recognize the difference between failures resulted by neglecting or those caused by lack of training. A leader need to be constructive when criticize in order to encourage learning and improvement.

While listening and reading about leadership, I realized a simple thing: leadership is a responsibility. It can be a beautiful challenge, and can make ‘miracles’: can save species from extinction, can transform people and societies making them better, more innovative, adaptable and ultimately happier. But in the same time, leadership can cause and result in undesired failures, conflicts and can make people suffer. These are rather simple things – I know. But it is a good experience to think about them, especially in the Romanian and Eastern European context where many things (e.g. landscapes, societies, cultural and natural heritages) will certainly depend on the (formal, informal) leadership.


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

Manolis, J.C. et al. 2009. Leadership: a new frontier in conservation science. Conservation Biology 23: 879-886.


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