Leadership skills

The eight essential environmental leadership skills

Everyone talks a lot about leadership training, but what is it really.  Fundamentally, leadership skills are those that allow you to work effectively with others in a variety of capacities to cultivate ideas and implement strategies to move an agenda forward.  In the Middlebury School of the Environment, the broad agenda we want to connect students with it environmental health, justice, and restoration.

At the MSoE, there are eight skills that we  believe are essential for effectively addressing this agenda, skills that we emphasize in our curriculum and co-curricular activities.

  1. Teaming.  How do teams work best, and how can you best work in a team?
  2. Communication styles.  What is your own communication style, and how can you adapt it to promote communication with others?
  3. Persuasive public speaking.  What is your message, and how can you persuasively deliver in different settings to different audiences?
  4. Networking.  How do you engage with others to make them a part of your extended network of contacts for generating ideas and opportunities?
  5. Fundraising.  How do you create opportunities for others to donate money towards initiatives that advance their goals?
  6. Empathy.  How do you develop a sincere understanding about how someone else is feeling?
  7. Cultural capacity.  How do you overcome your own cultural programming to open the door to understanding how someone from a different culture views their environmental challenges and needs?
  8. Interviewing.  How do you elicit information from others to help them reveal the underlying problems and hidden solutions to their environmental challenges.

During the course of the Middlebury School of the Environment, we will engage you in all eight of these skills.  And in the coming months, I will talk more about each of them on The Stream.

The Power of Communication

We recently spent an afternoon with Mary Hurlie, of LeaderScope, talking about … and experiencing the consequences of … different styles of communication.  Whether someone wants to receive information through direct, to-the-point conversation or wants to use conversation to first develop an interactive relationship is neither right nor wrong.  But recognizing that those styles exist and learning how to flex one’s own style in order to engage comfortably with others is a hallmark of effective communication.

Communications 5What does this have to do with the environment?  Making a difference in the world, being effective at creating positive change requires effective communication.  And communication is not just about talking at people; it’s also (and importantly) about listening to people.

Over the decades, environmentalists have become much better at messaging.  We reach out to more people in more sophisticated ways with our messages — whether it’s about climate change, socioeconomic inequality, species extinction, and any of the hundreds of other issues before us — than ever before.  But we have not become all that good at listening to others.  Or, at least, not as good as we need to be.

So that’s what we did.  We learned how to become better listeners.

It’s easy if you try … and if you know what to listen for.

Communications 1


Gus Speth at the School of the Environment

Gus_SpethI’m very pleased to be announce that Gus Speth will join the School of the Environment as a Fellow this summer, both talking informally to the students about his life as an environmental leader and giving a formal lecture, which will be open to the public.  Throughout his career, James Gustave “Gus” Speth has provided leadership and entrepreneurial initiatives to many task forces and committees whose roles have been to combat environmental degradation and promote sustainable development, including the President’s Task Force on Global Resources and Environment; the Western Hemisphere Dialogue on Environment and Development; and the National Commission on the Environment. Among his awards are the National Wildlife Federation’s Resources Defense Award, the Natural Resources Council of America’s Barbara Swain Award of Honor, a 1997 Special Recognition Award from the Society for International Development, Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Environmental Law Institute and the League of Conservation Voters, the Blue Planet Prize, and the Thomas Berry Great Work Award of the Environmental Consortium of Colleges and Universities.

In short, there are few people who can speak more authoritatively or with more breadth of experience about what it will take for students to become effective agents of environmental change than Gus Speth.

He is the author, co-author or editor of seven books including the award-winning The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability and Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. His latest book is America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, published by Yale Press in September 2012.

He is currently on the faculty of the Vermont Law School as Professor of Law. He serves also as Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, Senior Fellow at The Democracy Collaborative, and Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute. In 2009 he completed his decade-long tenure as Dean, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. From 1993 to 1999, Gus Speth was Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and chair of the UN Development Group. Prior to his service at the UN, he was founder and president of the World Resources Institute; professor of law at Georgetown University; chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality (Carter Administration); and senior attorney and cofounder, Natural Resources Defense Council.

Stay tuned for more information about the title, timing, and location of his public lecture.  If you are in the area, it will be well worth attending!

Bill McKibben Joins Us This Summer

McKibbenWe are pleased to announce that noted author and environmentalist Bill McKibben will join us as a Fellow of the Middlebury School of the Environment this summer.  Bill has worked tirelessly – and successfully – on behalf of the environment for over 25 years.  His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages. He is founder of 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement. The Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was the 2013 winner of the Gandhi Prize and the Thomas Merton Prize, and holds honorary degrees from 18 colleges and universities; Foreign Policy named him to their inaugural list of the world’s 100 most important global thinkers, and the Boston Globe said he was “probably America’s most important environmentalist.” A former staff writer for the New Yorker, he writes frequently a wide variety of publications around the world, including the New York Review of Books, National Geographic, and Rolling Stone.

This summer, Bill will bring to the students at the School of the Environment his expertise as a journalist on how to craft Op-ed pieces for promoting environmental issues and narratives, as well as his expertise as a practitioner in organizational strategy and creative ideation.  We are pleased and excited that he is joining us, and I know that students who attend the School this summer will benefit tremendously from his experience, insight, and passion.

Welcoming New Leadership Fellows

As I have noted in several previous posts, the curriculum for the Middlebury School of the Environment will include workshops offered by a wide variety of professionals who have expertise in one or more tools critical for achieving success in effecting environmental change.  I am pleased to be able to announce the addition of two more Fellows for the School of the Environment, Dr. Helen Riess and Dr. Michael Kiernan.

Portraits of Middlebury College's Board of TrusteesHelen Riess, M.D., is the Chief Technology Officer of Empathetics, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. She conducts translational research using the neuroscience of emotions in educational curricula to improve empathy and relational skills in physicians and other health care providers.  Dr. Riess will join the School of the Environment this summer as a Fellow to lead a workshop on “Empathy and the Environment,” building upon her innovative work on the power of empathy as both a leadership skill and a means to develop positive relationships with people in virtually any setting.


MiddCORE Winter Term (j-term) class at VPR with Jane LindholmMike Kiernan is a physician, actor, public speaker – and one today’s most energetic and engaging voices for creative leadership and communication.  He will be joining the School of the Environment as a Fellow to engage with the students on persuasive communication skills.  He has been an instructor in Middlebury College’s leadership and innovation training program, MiddCORE, since 2008 in all areas related to leadership and communication: crisis management, networking, story-making, and both strategic presentation design and delivery. He has also worked as a communications consultant with political candidates, physicians, business executives, and teams on leadership retreats. Mike is an actor and member of the local professional theater company, the Middlebury Actors Workshop. He is also a physician and recently was President of the Medical Staff at Porter Hospital. Mike serves on the Technical Advisory Group for the Green Mountain Care Board and the Executive Counsel of Vermont Medical Society. He is also an advisor to the State of Vermont Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Committee.



Leadership in Alternative Energy

Alden WoodrowThis summer, Alden Woodrow will join the School as a practitioner-in-residence, bringing to the students his experience in leading teams that develop alternative energy strategies as well as a background in economics and business.

Alden Woodrow leads the business team for the Makani project at Google [x] (formerly Makani Power), which has developed a novel approach to generating wind power.  The Makani Airborne Wind Turbine is a tethered wing that generates power by flying in large circles where the wind is stronger and more consistent. It eliminates 90% of the material used in conventional wind turbines, and can access winds both at higher altitudes and above deep waters offshore — resources that are currently untapped. Their goal is the utility-scale deployment of airborne turbines in offshore wind farms.

MakaniAlden directs Makani’s strategy, business development, communications, policy, and partnership efforts. He previously worked for a power project developer financing utility-scale wind farms, and as an economic and environmental consultant on topics ranging from climate policy to dog house manufacturing. Alden holds an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business with a focus on energy finance.

We’re very much looking forward to him joining us this summer, as can offer a fresh perspective not only on the future trends in alternative energy generation but how innovative thinking can be manifest in a business environment.

Spreading the word at TEDx Middlebury

Last November I had the pleasure of speaking at the TEDx Middlebury event called “Research, Rethink, Rebuild.”  The title of my presentation was “Reclaiming the Soul of Higher Education,” and in it I make the case for why I think programs like the School of the Environment are not only important but essential for higher education in the 21st century.  But rather than describe to you what I said, check it out for yourself … and let me know what you think about the message.  The only thing at stake is the very future of society.



Are you creative?

One of the most valuable skills for manifesting positive change in the world is creativity.  Being able to envision possible solutions to a problem — whether it’s a small improvement to a home or feeding the world — is the first step in bringing solutions to life.  But too many people feel like they simply aren’t creative.  Creativity, they think, is for artists, writers, and musicians, but for them.  We all start out life as creative people; just think back to your early years when you had no trouble drawing and play-acting with joy and complete abandon.

But somewhere along the way, many of us hit barriers that led us to believe we just didn’t have what it takes to be creative.  Maybe it was a teacher, a parent, or a peer who said, in effect, that we weren’t very good artistically or musically.  And as a result, we shut off that part of our identity, and closed off the world to the benefits of our insights and intuition.

It’s against this backdrop that Tom and David Kelley offer a way forward in their new book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all.  Based on their decades of experience with IDEO, the acclaimed design and innovation consulting firm based in San Francisco, and d.school (aka the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University), the Kelley’s offer up a guided tour that not only demolishes the myth that creativity is a gift only given to a select few but also offers a way forward for everyone to unlock their own gift within.

Creative ideation — the act of formulating, testing, and implementing creative ideas — is at the heart of the School of the Environment’s curriculum, and therefore Creative Confidence will be at the core of our reading list.  Over the next several weeks, I want to unpackage the practical steps that the Kelley’s lay out so that everyone can unleash the “creative” within.  So get a copy and read along.  It’s well worth the journey.

In the meantime, ask yourself these questions:  Do you feel like you are a creative person?  If not, what happened to convince you of that narrative about yourself?  And more importantly, how has that belief prevented you from unleashing your positive influence on the world?

Can reading literary fiction enhance leadership skills?

Every since Daniel Goleman published his seminal work on emotional intelligence (Emotional Intelligence, 1995, Bantam Books), it has been well appreciated that effective leadership requires much more than simple mastery of facts.  Leaders need the capacity to interact effectively with people on a personal, non-cognitive level, which led Goleman to propose that emotional intelligence was at least as important, if not more so, than I.Q.

Viewed now, almost 20 years later, this idea seems obvious.  The concept of “leadership” is only relevant if more than a single person is involved, and as soon as people need to work together, effective interaction requires empathy for emotional states, different communication styles, and non-verbal cues.

So improving one’s emotional intelligence — in particular one’s ability to interpret correctly non-verbal cues and emotional states — is an important leadership skill.  The question then becomes, “How can it be done?”

The most recent contribution to that conversation was recently published on-line by the journal Science, the primary publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  In their October 3rd article titled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at the New School for Social Research in New York City, write:

Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults. We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM (experiments 1 to 5) and cognitive ToM (experiments 4 and 5) compared with reading nonfiction (experiments 1), popular fiction (experiments 2 to 5), or nothing at all (experiments 2 and 5). Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM.

In simple terms?  Literary fiction is typically character driven, rather than plot driven, as is more typical of popular or genre fiction.  Following a story being advanced by characters requires that the reader engage with the characters themselves, with all the nuance, ambiguity, and subtlety given to them by their creators.  Reading literary fiction therefore trains the reader to interpret nuance, ambiguity, and subtlety.

The authors note that they aren’t (yet) able to demonstrate that this effect lasts over time, primarily because their experiments weren’t designed to look for that.  But like all good science, their results open the door to more questions worth pursuing.

But even these limited results are intriguing.  The connections between the humanities and leadership are even more direct than the simple truism that leaders need to be well-rounded citizens of the world.

To improve your leadership skills … go read a literary book!

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