Leading across cultures

 – Simon Black

A recent paper by Straka et al (2018) suggests that cultural considerations have not been well examined in conservation leadership literature. Whilst in the broadest terms this may be  true (they systematically reviewed 15 paper is total), they miss one theme which I push consistently when working with international groups of conservation leaders. The start point for any human interaction at work (and that includes leadership, of course) is meeting people at the common point of interaction for all cultures; DIGNITY.

This has been mentioned by others as a new way to consider how conservation professionals should work with local communities (Mattson and Clark 2011). If we accept others, even if their world view is very different from our own, we have a chance to communicate. If we communicate we can understand because we build our own knowledge (if we are open minded) and can build the knowledge of others (if we are clear and unambiguous). This allows us to open up new possibilities in our own minds.

Straka et al (2018) suggest it appears similarly important that training programs in conservation leadership and conservation science acknowledge, promote and use cultural diversity to inform effective leadership practices. This may be true, but the same can be said about being better at mathematics – if you pick the wrong technique, no matter how good you are at it, you will fail. We really do need to understand effective leadership practices and ineffective leadership practices and use that knowledge to develop good leaders. We already know a lot more about what works and what does not than might be generally recognised.

We need to take care to deal with inequity and imbalance in gender in leadership roles.  The problem comes when barriers are presented, as often experienced by women, which preclude them from leadership roles, or make their experience in the role one where their time and energy is wasted on irrelevant prejudicial behaviours of others. We need the best leaders, whatever the gender, and the barriers that exclude women are also likely to allow inappropriate people to get into leadership in their place. 

As it turns out, the best blend is with a mix of people; gender, background, discipline, culture, thinking processes – diversity adds value. But these are just ingredients – you also need method and the difference between a good approach and a bad approach is a gulf of effectiveness. You cannot, as a leader, simply ‘do the wrong things righter‘. We need to be more clever than that.

It is not a question of understanding the intricacies of different cultures (although that will help, of course). It is a matter of having an approach that cuts through those differences. So it is not about being seen as ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ by certain cultures, or being ‘participative’ or ‘dictatorial’ by some, or ‘informal’ or ‘formal’ by others.

It is also certainly nothing to do with being ‘motivational’ or ‘transformational’ – these are buzz words which mean little in practice.

For an effective leader it is a matter of being purposeful and getting colleagues to realise that they too must be purposeful. If we act with integrity and communicate to understand and seek knowledge, then we can make progress whatever our world view.


Black S.A. and Copsey J.A. (2014) Purpose, processes, knowledge and dignity are missing links in interdisciplinary projects. Conservation Biology  28 (5): 1139-1141 DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12344

Mattson, D. J., and S. G. Clark. 2011. Human dignity in concept and
practice. Policy Sciences 44:303–320.

Straka, T. M., Bal, P., Corrigan, C., Di Fonzo, M. M., & Butt, N. (2018). Conservation leadership must account for cultural differences. Journal for Nature Conservation.


Species Conservation: Lessons from Islands

A new book, published this June 2018 draws on the experiences of conservation interventions on islands, and the threats that they attempt to overcome to protect and recovery endangered species.

The book brings together leading conservation practitioners to reflect on their response to the current global biodiversity crisis, through the lens of island species recovery and management.

Initial chapters cover the biological understanding of small population biology and the growing threat of invasive species, while subsequent chapters discuss the management of these threats and the complexity of leading projects within a dynamic and still relatively unknown system. Multiple case studies from islands worldwide illustrate key points, allowing readers to draw on the first-hand practical experience of respected professionals.

This resource will be invaluable to both current and future conservation professionals, helping them to go beyond disciplinary ‘comfort zones’ and develop, manage and lead projects over extensive time frames in a way that brings others with them on the journey.

Towards Modern Management in Wildlife Conservation

Simon Black –

Management has been a serious discipline of academic note at least since the 1940s, with Peter Drucker popularising its study by managers and organisations with over 30 books. Starting from The Concept of the Corporation in 1946 which first introduced the idea of organisational management, Drucker is considered one of the most important thought leaders in management.  It is notable that whilst he encouraged focus on customers and rejected the concepts of command-and-control, his ideas hold many inconsistencies. Less helpful suggestions include his emphasis on work design based on ‘front office’ and ‘back office’ concepts, outsourcing, and management-by-objectives. What is interesting about these ideas is that they appear very plausible – the bread and butter of management surely. Yet in practice these approaches fall down time-and-time again (and for good reason when you understand systems theory and psychology).

It can be argued that these ideas appear far from the operational concerns of wildlife conservation. Nevertheless, time and again I see conservation NGOs and government departments using management-by-objectives. It is also common for decision makers to be based in HQ whilst people on the ground have to take grief from local people, or to find field professionals fiddling around waiting in frustration for senior authorisation to make necessary interventions. Worse, whole programmes get defined by the requirements of funders, not the needs of species and ecosystems of concern.

In most instances these difficulties are of course not the deliberate fault of central management. But as senior managers we must not omit to make effort to understand the realities of management – if you design the work and the organisation incorrectly it prevents purposeful action by staff. The best conservation managers focus on having a whole picture of conservation management – purposefully leading people “to do the right work better“, for the benefit of species and ecosystems.

This requires an understanding of the function and nature of systems, variation, psychology and knowledge (Deming 1982), which often challenges our preconceptions about management, organisation and leadership. Yet the combination of these areas of capability enables more meaningful and effective planning, goal-setting, partnership development and conservation work improvement. These new facets of leadership capability and the associated range of skills and disciplines needed for successful implementation are not taught in business schools or in conservation degrees and rarely appear in training courses. Yet, all remain vital for our sector with its challenges and uncertainties.

This is real Modern Management in Conservation.


Black, S. A., Groombridge, J. J., & Jones, C. G. (2013). Using better management thinking to improve conservation effectiveness. ISRN Biodiversity, 2013http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2013/784701

Deming, W. E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering Study, Cambridge,
Mass, USA.


Let’s not have species and ecosystems paying for the mistakes of conservation organisations

Simon Black –

I am optimistic for the future of conservation and for the impact that dedicated professionals and committed communities can make for species, ecosystems and landscapes. Time and again I encounter individuals and teams who are doing fantastic work devising interventions which make a difference.

But we must remember, as leaders, that the best efforts of people are not enough, and may sometimes even be damaging. Instead it is our use of KNOWLEDGE and applying it to understanding what to change to enable improvement that really counts. This is not ‘knowledge for knowledge sake’ – it is not ‘research for our interest only’.

It is about being purposeful. Knowing what we want to achieve, understanding the method to achieve it (including how to test out the method) and knowing, through measurement, when we have accomplished our purpose (or at least if we are on the way to accomplishing it).

Thankfully there are professionals who are now exploring new ways of implementing initiatives, of working with key communities, of understanding how to accelerate the recovery of ecosystems. This is not easy work and often requires convincing others of new ways of operating – throwing off the suffocating security blankets of conservation goals, plans, strategies and techniques. But this is necessary, in order to cut through the blinkered thinking and bureaucracies which hamper progress or prevent innovative thinking.

Species and ecosystems eventually pay for the delays and mistakes of conservation, just as, in the observation of Deming, consumers and society pay for the mistakes and delays of industry through a reduced standard of living.

If we as conservation professionals rely on complex investment, planning, prioritisation, science, training and human resource strategies without focusing on the real issues that impact on improvement of ecosystems, then we risk wasting money, opportunity, influence and reputation. In the long term it will be species and ecosystems which pay.

Let us, as conservation leaders, take a better path to achieving conservation of the vital biodiversity that shares the planet with us.


Black SA, Copsey JA (2014). Purpose, Process, Knowledge and
Dignity in Interdisciplinary Projects. Conserv Biol 28(5): 1139-1141.

Black SA, Copsey J (2014) Does Deming’s System of Profound
Knowledge Apply to Leaders of Biodiversity Conservation? Open
Journal of Leadership 3: 53-65.

Coonan TJ, Schwemm,CA, & Garcelon DK (2010) Decline and recovery of the island fox: a case study for population recovery. Cambridge University Press.

Leslie SC, Blackett FC, Stalio M, Black SA (2017) Systems Behaviour Charts for Longitudinal Data Inform Marine Conservation Management. J Aquac Mar Biol 6(5): 00171. DOI: 10.15406/jamb.2017.06.00171

Martin, T. G., Nally, S., Burbidge, A. A., Arnall, S., Garnett, S. T., Hayward, M. W., … & Possingham, H. P. (2012). Acting fast helps avoid extinction. Conservation Letters, 5(4), 274-280.

Pungaliya AV, Black SA (2017) Insights into the Recovery of the Palila
(Loxioides bailleui) on Hawaii through Use of Systems Behaviour
Charts. International Journal of Avian & Wildlife Biology 2(1): 00007.

New paradigms needed for managing conservation change

Simon Black –

Traditional conservation practice follows a couple of familiar paradigms.

The first involves an enthusiast taking up a cause, for a particular species or landscape. that enthusiasm maybe a scientific professional, a lay person with a personal interest , or a local community member. Progress is reliant on the wit and wisdom of that individual and their ability to gather together the necessary resources and support to make things happen. Progress may take weeks, month, years, decades. I have seen this with individual scientists following lone paths in places like Hong Kong, Assam, Madagascar, Comores, Oman, and the Cayman Islands. It is a path well trodden by well-known individuals like Dian Fossey, Gerald Durrell, Tom Cade, and Peter Scott. it is admirable and without exception reliant on determination and a long term view.

A second paradigm is where better-organisaed and resources NGOs or government departments take up the mantle of work using their own infrastructure and methods. This is a ‘conservation plus’ approach which takes the form of time bound period of work (driven by funding cycles) which is generally called ‘a project’, or if a series of funding cycles can be strung together into a coherent, long-term approach ‘a programme’. this is the most common form of conservation work. The excellent work with the California Channel Island fox is a good example.

A third form of approach has emerged as NGOs and governments have realised the need for long term interventions, most easily observed in USA ESA  species such as the California Condor or black-Footed Ferret, but also in successful programmes on the coastal and oceanic islands of New Zealand and programmes on mainland Australia.

As larger-scale landscape approaches are recognised as important, the long-term model has been broadened to supply a funding infrastructure or socio-economic system that enables long term recover and incentives to establish new landscape and species protection. These large-scale approaches are observed in the Atlantic forest states of Brazil with water catchment and reforestation initiatives involving private landowners and land users across a mosaic landscape.

These types of systemic approach which establish human use of natural landscapes within certain ‘acceptable’ parameters (e.g. sustainability or biodiversity recovery) offer a dramatic shift in how we as humans can re-engage with the natural world.

However it is not enough. Emergency action is still required – recovering populations, preventing poaching, breaking illegal trade, halting forest destruction. These all require major change and interventions which will make a dramatic difference.

Unfortunately the traditional project management mindset will never deliver the required speed of change. Project management is the poorest method for delivering change (especially change that requires a shift in psychology of key stakeholders). Project management is alos applicable where a known design and outcome is specified – yet in conservation the complexity of ecosystems, socio-economic systems and species behaviour is rarely predictable.

A different approach is required – and conservation managers need to be ready to take it on.

A Model of Assertiveness for Purposeful Conservation

Simon Black – 

I am involved in a lot of work with assertive behaviour training, coaching and support for conservation professionals working in the field, in office bureaucracies, in laboratories and in zoos.

The basic mindset of an assertive leader is to think  win-win – to keep a strong value for yourself and your needs, but also be mindful and work with the needs of others. if you simply ride roughshod over other people’s interests you will destroy trust and erode support. remember compliance in not the same as commitment. A leader who thinks that a team simply ‘doing what it is told’ is performing at its peak is deluding themselves.

Win-win (Covey 1987) means looking to strongly but fairly assert what is needed to enable the project to succeed – to keep tasks on track and accurate, to keep the team dynamics effective, and to keep individuals developing and performing to potential. of course in the real world many things can compromise this success – money , resources, climate, luck. what you do not need is for manageable things  – like your own behaviour as a leader, or the behaviour of others in the team, to get in the way on top of this.

The model which I introduce to people in training and coaching sessions follows four segments of behaviour: Effective Assertive/Responsive behaviours and Self-Defeating Aggressive/Passive behaviours.

Assertiveness Model that I use for training

Assertiveness (Smith, 1975) enables you to access a range of behaviours in the green win/win areas of behaviour to influence others (Coppin and Barratt, 2002). You can show low level assertion by simply giving clear information or instructions. You can you higher level of assertion by giving reasons.

The skills can be learned and practiced.

The trick is to avoid the Aggressive and Passive behaviours yourself and in your team’s behaviour. This will not be achieved 100%, but aim to operate in the Assertive/Responsive boxes most of the time. I describe these effective win/win behaviours as “Above the Line Behaviour”.

Assertive behaviour is consistent with systems thinking. It gives colleagues clear inputs and feedback to allow them to make decisions about how to operate. If we have clear values that are consistent with the purpose of our team and a win/win mentality, we can use assertiveness to encourage people to work effectively with us and together with colleagues (Kouzes and Posner, 1995).

There is much to learn about interpersonal behaviour, and a huge amount to gain form new skills. it is not a matter of psycho-babble and game-playing. Quite the opposite. Assertiveness cuts through all the garbage.


Coppin, A. and Barratt, J (2002) Timeless management. Palgrave MacMillan, NY.

Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.

Smith, M. (1975) When I say no I feel guilty. Bantam Press, New York, NY

Kouzes J.M. and Posner B.Z. (1995) The Leadership Challenge. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA

The Role of Optimism in Conservation Leadership

Simon Black –

Sometimes, to keep getting the work done you need to have a optimistic outlook, as illustrated in current work recovering bird species on Maui in Hawaii.

A visionary conservation leader needs to look beyond current problems and threats and see what is possible. Indianapolis prizewinner Carl Jones contends that even at the outset of his work with the most endangered of species in Mauritius, he never thought that they would not succeed.

It is an optimisim that drives action, and is centred on pragmatism – what needs to be done (Beever, 2000). However the pragmatism is not about compromise. More of a way of finding what can be done, of learning from failure.

It is a mistake to think that we can imagine and model the perfect solution for wildlife. It is also wrong to expect that humans will never change their perspective on the world, the right place to live, what to eat, how to use natural resources. there are huge challenges, but we all have common interests. It takes a humble person to find out the needs of others.

In conservation the temptation is to set out on a scientific path, pressing forward for our species of concern. But sometimes we need to step back and identify what those species really need. That will give us insight into new solutions.

A really important step is to accept failures as learning opportunities.  If we are prepared to accept what works and what does not work and learn, we are likely to accelerate conservation improvements. It is an optimism that positive lessons can be learned from negative outcomes. Let’s not brush failure under the carpet.

Of course optimism is not just blind faith. We need to learn how to better show the advances and improvements that conservation work can deliver. This may mean learnign new ways to understand, present, and discuss the real changes that can be achieved through human effort. Hope has to be placed in reality (Swaisgood and Sheppard, 2010).

It is in everyone’s interest to be optimistic.


Beever, E. (2000). Diversity: The Roles of Optimism in Conservation Biology. Conservation Biology, 14(3), 907-909.

Black S.A. and Copsey J.A. (2014) Purpose, processes, knowledge and dignity are missing links in interdisciplinary projects. Conservation Biology  28 (5): 1139-1141 DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12344

Swaisgood, R. R., & Sheppard, J. K. (2010). The culture of conservation biologists: Show me the hope!. BioScience, 60(8), 626-630.

Carl Jones: 2016 Indianapolis prizewinner https://vimeo.com/102764135

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.