So what really is leadership? Offer us your views…

Readers of The Conservation Leader blog have an opportunity to participate in a major survey examining which aspects of leadership are most important and influential in successful leadership.

If you wish to participate in the survey, which is led by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology and the School of Psychology at the University of Kent, UK. The survey is anonymous and confidential and entirely voluntary. To find out more go to the landing page at this link (see below), where you are able to give your consent to participate before you commit to completing the questionnaire and also prior to final submission of your answers. We hope that you are able to contribute.

You can access the survey here: Conservation Leadership Survey

Thanks for your participation.

Simon Black (Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology)

Matching capability with purpose

Simon Black –

Any team needs to deliver the work that achieves its purpose. Getting people up to the right level of ability is important. This capability covers skills, awareness of the work, clarity on the goals and a sense of purpose that enables (i) prioritisation of effort, (ii) decision making and (iii) problem solving.


A recent study in Mauritius by Stebbings et al (2016) identified that operational teams made up of significant numbers of new starters (e.g. seasonal volunteers or incoming professionals) found that those new colleagues only achieved the desired level of performance part-way through the peak breeding seasons for working with endangered birds.

The arrangement for taking on new staff was historical and fitted a plan of when people would be at their busiest. However this study showed that taking people on earlier and training them to a higher level would make them more productive at the busiest times.


Stebbings, E. , Copsey, J. , Tatayah, V. , Black, S. , Zuël, N. and Ferriere, C. (2016) Applying Systems Thinking and Logic Models to Evaluate Effectiveness in Wildlife Conservation. Open Journal of Leadership, 5, 70-83. doi:10.4236/ojl.2016.53007.

Consequences of over-management: total cost

It is not often that we get a chance to observe the consequences of management. In this stark case below we consider resourcing.

Insightful satire on resourcing by Erik Meijaard (click to enlarge to full size)

Of course whilst the example given above is ‘tongue in cheek, the message is not – why do we design funding and resourcing in a way that constrains the use of that very resource or constrains the direction and type of work that a programme undertakes?

Clearly the funders set the rules and we as project leaders may have no inflience over those rules. Instead we have an alternative consideration – is it worth our while to chase funding that will constrain or distract us from our work?

The only way we can look at this is to consider the concept of Total Cost. Is the total cost of following a path worth the short term advantage of taking the resource (or work) on? It is similar to considering making savings when building a house. If we cut corners now, will the house be functional or safe in the future – short term gain versus long term pain.

Starting with little, to achieve something great

In conservation we are working in the business of change. We want to improve the situation for a species, or remove threats, or recover a landscape, or enable humans to co-exist  with a sustainable natural environment.

As humans within human society and as biologists working with species and ecosystems we need to recognise that change is not a cause-effect process. Instead we should think of it as an emergent property – an outcome of many interventions and interactions with the things we are concerned about and their wider environment.

It is almost inconceivable that a rhino has recently been killed in a French zoo by poachers for its horn . Yet this is an outcome from changes in the system – the the need for income by criminals, the demand for horn, the depletion in accessibility to alternative wild supplies (due to better wildlife protection). We need to truly understand the dynamics in order to eliminate the threat and this takes constant learning – what worked before might not be relevant today. This sometimes seems too much to tackle.

We cannot do everything today. So how do we start?

Black Robin. Photo originally by schmechf, modified by Wikimedia Commons.The best processes of learning, improvement and innovation start small and grow big. This is also true in many cases within the conservation sector.

The Chatham Island Black Robin, Mauritius Kestrel and other species have been brought back from the brink by making initial steps, learning and continuing to make those steps. Start small and then build up. This strategy enables us to move fast and act, but most importantly learn, improve and upscale carefully. These examples are clearly not as complex or global as the system that impacts rhino conservation, but we must never be too afraid to learn how to innovate.


Further reading:

Gagliardo, R., Griffith, E., Mendelson, J., Ross, H., and Zippel, K. (2008). “The principles of rapid response for amphibian conservation, using the programmes in Panama as an example”. International Zoo Yearbook 42 (1): 125–135.

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Martin, T. G., Nally, S., Burbridge, A. A., et al. (2012). Acting fast helps avoid extinction. Conservation Letters, 5, 274-280.


Relevant links:


The only plan is to gain knowledge

Simon Black –

Traditional change management follows a linear approach, defining a goal, identifying a plan and delivering to that plan. The process is logical and surely unquestionable. However this is an example of linear thinking, which is rarely the appropriate way to consider complex conservation problems.

Ecosystems, landscapes, habitats, communities, species, populations do not act in a linear fashion, they are much more complex. This means that if you change one thing then something unexpected is likely to happen somewhere else – and what you had intended may or may not happen.

Of course understanding systems can be a difficult thing to do. Instead, managers either resort to ‘giving their view’ on things, or setting success measures based on those views. Having a view on why things are a problem is one thing, but  it is better to get knowledge by collecting data (Deming 1993; Seddon 2005).

It is better to define the following:

  • Purpose is the definition of why we are here, best understood from the species or ecosystem perspective.
  • Measures allow us to understand what is likely to happen in future if the system (including human community interactions, commercial industrial or agricultural land use, wildlife trade etc) doesn’t change.
  • Method – can be addressed when we understand the data derived from our measures.
Manatee deaths due to watercraft collisions in Florida. Knowing the occurrence level (Measure) can we do anything (Method) to reduce unnecessary mortality of manatees (Purpose)?

Systems Theory tells us that Purpose, Measures and Method are fundamentally linked – it is a systemic relationship. This systemic relationship can either work for you or against you depending on how you set things up.

The paradox is that in this system, change requires no plan. For Seddon, change is simply an emergent property. It can only occur if you set things up that enable people to innovate with interventions in response to the real system of species and ecosystems – what happens.

Any attempt to plan change otherwise is fiction.



Deming, W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Seddon, J. (2005). Freedom from Command and Control. Buckingham: Vanguard Press.



The Need for Speed : change need not be a slow business

Simon Black –

Change is very often considered to be a slow and often difficult process, particulalry in wildlife conservation. With human communities there is a particular problem and ‘culture change’ is seen as a long and winding road. Howveer it is not always the barrier that it appears to be – human beings are notable as creatures that have mastered  (or, at least, have developed) the art of adapting. We have changed our knowledge, decisions, behaviour, environment, relationships, societies. It is too easy to think that we ‘don’t like change’. This is simply not the case. We are beings that not only adapt to what is around us, but we often actively choose to change what is around us. After all, it is not uncommon for us to seek to find ways to make things better or different (either for ourselves or, sometimes, others!).

My great-grandfather (who was still around when I was a youngster) was born into the Victorian age in the 1880s when the motor car had not been invented. He was already a young man when the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, yet lived to experience flying in jet airliners and even saw the Apollo astronauts land on the moon. His life experiences, work and education had to adapt fairly radically, but I imagine it was a fairly natural process – that’s life.

Whilst change should be seen as a ‘natural’ process, for conservation it is a question of moving people towards a desired state and away from an undesied state. This might be about resource use, attitudes to wildlife, cultural norms, business interests. But even these sorts of changes can occur in noticeable timescales; weeks and months not years. Changes should move into short timescales to become noticeable, rather than at barely-observable ‘glacial’ rates. Herrero (2006) goes further, suggesting that if cultural changes cannot be observed in short time-frames, then something is wrong.

  • “Cultural change does NOT need to be a slow and painful long-term affair.” – there is a better way.
  • “Short-term wins CAN represent real change.”  with viral networks which engage many people, small changes can lead to a big impact.

We need to accelerate change by engaging networks of people in making things happen. In a previous post it was suggested that small sets of behavioural changes, taken on and shared by informal groups of people can generate improvements in a non-linear way, as Hererro terms it, a ‘viral’ spread.

To influence others we need to encourage quick, meaningful changes; not just ticking items off the ‘to do’ list, but adopting new behaviours, new ways of thinking, new habits. These things may appear less tangible, but they do have impact, they don’t need to wait for a sign-off by top management and they do allow change to happen much quicker.

It may be a matter of worling with a few people who are open minded, Their experiences may influences others. It is likely to involved continual effort – very unlikely for a one-off intervention to have an impact. The RARE approach tp cultural change is an example of this extended, targetted and influentual approach. It mobilises people within the ecosystems of concern for the benefit of species and landscapes.

This means that when we consider the ecosystems and landscapes of conscern we also need to consider how humans fit as part of that system and how thier behaviours, norms and expectations can be an engine for positive change.

Further reading:

Black S.A. and Copsey J.A. (2014) Does Deming’s ‘System of Profound Knowledge’ Apply to Leaders of Biodiversity Conservation? Open Journal of Leadership  3(2) 53-65. DOI: 10.4236/ojl.2014.32006

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Insights taken from an Understanding of Variation: (iii) Real improvement can be isolated from random noise

One of the most important things for conservation practitioners to be able to do is to detect real improvement (or real declines) from otherwise random changes for a species or ecosystem (Black and Copsey 2013).

Systems behaviour charts allow you to identify the difference between random changes and non-random changes -to see whether the ‘system’ has fundamentally changed if we use the rules summarised by Black (2015)

If we take the example of the recovery of Puerto Rican Parrots, initially managed by Snyder et al (1987) in the 1970s and 1980s, we see phases of the parrot population going up and down over time, some points above a mean line and some below (as you would expect).puerto-rican-parrots-chart

Where the pattern of data falls outside this expectation, the system has fundamentally changed. In the case of the Puerto Rican parrots, this occurred in 1978 and again more fundamentally in  1989. It even looks like a new breakthrough may follow on from 2009.

Even more important than the actual numbers however, is the insight from plotting natural limits and warning limits. For the parrots we see that although the population is generally improved it is not stable and could be expected throughout the 2000s to drop to less than 10 birds as much as rise to 65. Indeed today’s population could yet be vulnerable to extinction – with a projected lower natural limit appearing to be below zero using most recent year’s data .


Black S.A. (2015) System behaviour charts inform an understanding of biodiversity recovery. International Journal of Ecology, 2015 (787925): pp6

Black S.A. and Copsey J.A. (2014) Does Deming’s ‘System of Profound Knowledge’ Apply to Leaders of Biodiversity Conservation? Open Journal of Leadership  3(2) 53-65. DOI: 10.4236/ojl.2014.32006

Snyder,N. F. R. , Wiley, J. W. and Kepler, C. B. (1987) The Parrots of Luquillo: Natural History and Conservation of the Puerto Rican Parrot,Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, Los Angeles, Calif, USA.

110 Success Stories for Endangered Species Day 2012: Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata), March 2015,

Endangered Species Act Works: Puerto Rican parrot Amazona vittata, 2015, works/caribbean.html.

When the ‘purpose’ of work is forgotten…peril and failure

Simon Black –

Probably the most fundamental aspect of leadership is to keep yourself and your team focused on the purpose of your work (Black et al, 2013; Black 2015).

Although this might seem obvious, it is actually very easy to be distracted. Sometimes it is the distraction of personal ambition, the needs of stakeholders (including one’s managers), ‘interesting work’ and so on.

The black-spotted turtles were released in Indus River near Kalar Goth on Monday morning. PHOTO: EXPRESS Here is a stark example of a lack of focus on purpose (conserving black-spotted turtles) leading to a mess up, exacerbated by (probably) panic and further blatant negligence (reported by witnesses). This did little for the turtles or the people charged with protecting them.

  1. Turtles were rescued from illegal smuggling (purposeful).
  2. They were taken to a release site, the Indus river (purposeful).
  3. The turtles stored in an office so that the release could be photographed the next day (a plausible approach to publicity, but not purposeful).
  4. The turtles died in the bags, or during handling (negligence).
  5. The bodies were discarded into the river (negligence).

All could have been avoided with either:

(i) a night-time release (if animals were healthy / disease free).

(ii) quarantine or pre-release in the pool facility which had been used on previous occasions

Both (i) and (ii) are purposeful – to conserve the turtles.

The opposite to negligence is diligence – leaders and team members must be diligent in their focus on the true and valuable purpose of work.

Read the article here:

Further reading:

SA Black, Groombridge, J.J. and Jones, C.G. (2013) Using better management thinking to improve conservation effectiveness. ISRN Biodiversity, Article ID 784701

Black, S.A. (2015) A clear purpose is the Start Point for Conservation Leadership. Conservation Letters.  8 (5): 383–384. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12203

Insights taken from an Understanding of Variation: (ii) A moment in time…is never enough to understand the whole story

manatee-mortality-figureThe status of any situation cannot be best judged from an isolated point in time. It is also dangerous to judge one point in time versus another point in time (such as this year versus last year). Consider this in the case of a population of rare birds, or the status of your budget, or the number of volunteers in your organisation. The only meaningful understanding of a data point is where it sits in the context of the past, and ideally, the future. For example if we look at manatee boat-collision mortality (right) and we have an annual count of 50 manatee deaths, is that good., bad or indifferent?

Prediction of the future is one of the most important but elusive skills that a manager can possess. Of course no one can actually predict the future, but we can identify predictable elements, or degrees of predictability. The best methods for prediction are based on using empirical data. In management circles, rather than establishing complex predictive models, the most pragmatic approach is to establish a picture of the current system and then base expectations on the predictability of the patterns of data in that system. For example with the Florida Manatee (above) we see three (or four) systems  – a stable low level of collision deaths (to 1983), then a higher level from 1984-1997, then an unstable period 1997-1999, then a new system thereafter. You have to loo at the right system to understand what might happen next.

It is also unhelpful to define a level of performance as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They key thing is how to stabilise it and how to make it better. The system in the 1990s is driven by the higher numbers of watercraft on the river systems – so collisions are more likely. We cannot say things are worse than in the 1970s, just that the likelihood of collision deaths is greater – and we might want to do something about that (such as impose slower waterway speed limits).


Black S.A. (2015) System behaviour charts inform an understanding of biodiversity recovery. International Journal of Ecology, 2015 (787925): pp6

A start point for Strategy is TOWS not (SWOT)

Many of us will be familiar with the use of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis when initially defining strategy. Practitioners like Michael Watkins have argued that traditional SWOT analysis gets people to consider organizational strengths and weaknesses, but end up in “abstract, navel-gazing discussions about ‘what are we good at’ and ‘what are we bad at‘”. In other words, the SWOT exercise becomes rather un-purposeful and delivers less than useful outcomes.

SWOT pic
Michael Watkins suggest you should consider the external environment first before defining your own capability

Watkins himself suggests that we start in the reverse order looking at THREATS and OPPORTUNITIES first because it gets people to consider the external environment first.

John Seddon would call this looking at things from the ‘outside in’ and from a systems perspective this makes complete sense. You should not design organisations, or  plans or strategies on the basis of what the plan should be like, but instead design in on the basis of the demands and needs that it must meet.

In other words, the relevant strengths and weaknesses of an organisation must be related to the actual demands, threats, constraints and opportunities which the organisation must face.

Apparently according to Watkins the only reason SWOT is presented as such is because the acronym is memorable and stuck. Again, management fad-ism seems to have overtaken sensible consideration of method (how you run a strategic development process)!

Remember when you conduct your SWOT  – or more correctly TOWS analysis start by using your knowledge of threats and opportunities – defined by real data, including the performance achieved by the organisation and the demands. threats and expectations of other stakeholders (including for us in conservation- populations, species, ecosystems and landscapes).


Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Watkins M. (2007 From SWOT to TOWS: answering a readers querstion. Harvard Business Review)