The Conservation Leadership Choice – a Future For Nature and For Ourselves

Simon Black – 

The Earth faces a crisis of environmental degradation and climate change: Carbon emissions, population growth and demand for energy, infrastructure, products and food.

We are a wasteful and self-obsessed species dominating a finite planet. The decline of ecosystems appears inevitable and unstoppable. Unlike us other species in our complex web of life do not have a spokesperson for their interests, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation for our human sake.

I often emphasise to conservation professionals that as professionals they must focus their work on “what matters to species and ecosystems”.

We are part of the ecosystems which we inhabit.

If we destroy natural resources, we destroy ourselves. This is illogical and immoral both in its effect on the species around us and on future human generations. Our challenge is to understand how we can co-exist with nature by addressing two drivers of change.

  • First, we need the positive efforts of the few people who have necessary technical skills to transform wild ecosystems.
  • Second, we need to divert the negative impact of the millions of us human consumers (who create the problem in the first place) and reverse our psychological separation from the natural world.
Simon Black image
Snapshots in time: (a) Round Island (1960), 22.5 km off the north coast of Mauritius, prior to the removal of European rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus and goats Capra aegagrus and multispecies restoration efforts. Note limited vegetation and evidence of extreme soil erosion. (b) A similar spot on Round Island (2014). Note the recovery of more diverse plant life, which now provides important habitats for native seabirds and endemic reptiles, including Telfair’s skink Leiolopisma telfairii, once widespread across Mauritius and now restricted to three offshore islands

Our urban populations need to re-engage with nature. In the past, cities were nature-free, with wildlife limited to cultivated parks, sports fields and private back yards. The most interesting places in cities for wildlife included waste ground, refuse tips, abandoned waterways and grave yards; urban wildlife by default. New thinking is required to consciously make a place for wildlife in our cities and to shape people’s expectations of nature in the human world.

We all have a part to play – how we live, what we want, where we live. Many of us, especially in the richer and developing nations, should think less about what we want and instead pursue what we need; clean water, sustainable food sources, clean air, a healthy landscape, security. We also need to appreciate that people living on the fringes of wild landscapes have the same needs, whether urban, agricultural, pastoral, subsistence or nomadic. As humans we must coexist with the landscape and the mix of species within it.

I am confident that replanted forests will survive in the high mountains of the Hawaiian Islands as a home for their unique endemic bird species. Wild boar, deer, pine martens and red squirrels will frequent the woodlands of southern England and feature in the conversations of people in the local pub. Sea turtles will return to nest on previously abandoned, human-cluttered beaches, delighting local people on Indian ocean islands like Reunion and Mauritius. New woodlands, walnut groves and fruit tree plantations will be established in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Old methods of shepherding will continue to emerge in France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands in response to the previously unthinkable, but manageable presence of wolves.

I am confident that if we share these successes and inspire our neighbours, the past 40 years of practical conservation effort and learning across the globe will not be squandered. Our agricultural economy can adapt. Our consumer behaviour can shift enough to reduce production pressure, transport and waste. Our ingenuity will devise technologies which will reduce the impact and drivers of climate change.

We have a future alongside nature, retaining both the wild places and the commonly encountered species that have inspired humanity throughout our existence. It is an act of leadership to make efforts which will have a real impact on retaining and restoring nature’s place on the planet.


Drawn from a previous article:

Black S.A. (2019) Choosing a Future for Nature and for Ourselves. Fifteen Eighty Four: Academic Perspectives from Cambridge University Press

Questioning conservation project design

Simon Black – 

Can we teach ourselves new ways of designing, testing and improving conservation work?

We rarely evaluate the success of project design by looking back at the plans – has it done what was planned? If you think about it, this is because what is important in a conservation intervention is whether conservation has actually been achieved – has it made a difference to species and ecosystems of concern?

Often programmes do not measure the things that matter (to species and ecosystems. Intead the focus is on activities and outcomes. These may have value in managing the project (or not) but do they help us to do conservation better?

John Seddon says “Change should start with study” He also suggests that the convention that you cannot implement change without projects, milestones and ‘deliverables’ are unhelpful. He says these have little value. Essentially systems thinking rejects all of these approaches. Does this have implications for conservation, where we have an addiction for projects and plans?

For Seddon the ONLY PLAN, is to do is go out, study and get knowledge. When you get knowledge you can change things. You follow this by predicting, but you never know by how much, but it is often better than you would ever have predicted. You also design interventions which have counter-intuitive points of intervention. We start to see this in social change programmes in conservation.

You need to avoid assumptions. You need to find out what is happening, the demands, the value of things, what matters.

A conservation programme design should follow this model. Carl Jones, winner of the Indianapolis Prize in 2016 has always followed his model, by seeking what matters to a species and then adapting approach season by season, week by week, year by year. A two or three year plan has little meaning, little predictability with endangered species. Carl has achieved unequalled success in species conservation and recovery.



Black S.A. (2014) Can we engineer an exponential growth in conservation impact? Solitaire 25: 3-5. Durrell Conservation Academy, Jersey.  ISSN 2053-1087.

Copsey, J.A., Black, S.A., Groombridge, J.J. and Jones C.G. (2018). Species Conservation: Lessons from Islands. Ecology, Biodiversity and Conservation Series. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.



Towards an understanding of conservation impact

Simon Black – 

Monitoring and evaluation is a common headache for conservation leaders. how do they evaluate the impact of a programme, intervention, or project? One of the big problems is that conservation professionals cannot attribute ’cause and effect’ to their interventions, so assume that they cannot suggest or claim that improvements have been ’caused’ by their intervention.

This false modesty is a problem, because it encourage even more spurious claims in its place – like recovery of species on a global scale, or a discussion of increased population counts when other factors may be involved. Few can claim (although some can truly claim with certainty)  that without intervention an extinction would have occurred.

We end up in a spiral of despair – will anything we do make a difference?

A new approach to leadership is required. This includes seeking ways of understanding the impact of conservation work on the systems of concern. this means understanding the status of the species and ecosystems involved. That understanding will never be complete – there will be many gaps and unknowns.

For example, the status of a species will not be known merely from its population size. There are many demographic, genetic, health and range-related factors well as an understanding of threats. However often there is no such data available nor the resources to measure and monitor these factors. In some instances we might not even know the baseline or historic situation for the species or ecosystem.

To improve our understanding  in these situations the first thing that needs to be done is to start looking at the available data over time. Instead of a snapshot look at the dynamics of the data as a surrogate measure of the status of the species.

In this cas

In this case a population of birds remains stable (Pungaliya et al 2018)

e a bird population has declined in size, but has become more stable  and less prone to fluctuations in size (Pungaliya and Black 2017).


If we look at a threat, such as deaths of manatees in human-built lock and canal systems, we can start to see if the situation is improving, or not. In this case, new control systems on lock has reduced the number of deaths (Black and Leslie 2018)

Statistically derived limits (defined by the data itself and NOT an ‘expert view’) enable us to see whether actual changes can (i) be identified and (ii) be attributed to any actions taken in terms of conservation effort.

We can start to consider management conservation for real improvements.

Further reading:

Black SA and Leslie SC (2018) Understanding impacts of mitigation in waterway control systems on manatee deaths in Florida. Int J Avian & Wildlife Biol 3 (5), 386‒390.

Pungaliya AV, Leslie SC, Black SA. (2018) Why stable populations of conserved bird species may still be considered vulnerable: the nihoa finch (telespiza ultima) as a case study. Int J Avian & Wildlife Biol. 2018;3(1):41‒43.

Pungaliya AV, Black SA. (2017) Insights into the recovery if the palila (Loxioides bailleui) on hawaii through use of systems behavior charts. Int J Avian & Wildlife Biol. 2017;2(1):4‒5.

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.

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.

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

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)

The definition of leadership – where to start…

Simon Black –

The simplest definition of leadership has been suggested as “…having followers” (Grint 2010). Notions of good or bad leadership become difficult, particularly when it comes to what a leader leads his or her followers to do. Then there are layers of how much followers take on their own initiative, how powerful the group dynamic is in generating effective work (whole greater than the sum of the parts ) and so on. Leadership is about the person, but it is also about the process and position in organisations, and of course about the purpose to which the leader directs people.

It is tempting to divide ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ into two separate activities, leadership being one about the future, about new or complex problems, strategic ; whilst management is about the ‘seen it before’ the mundane or ordinary, tactical. However more and more expert thinkers on these topics are realising that the two are both interlinked. Deming always linked them together (he called leadership ‘supervision’, but updated the terminology on advice of a colleague to ‘leadership’) and never divided the right way of thinking, the right way of envisioning improvement and potential success and enacting meaningful conversations with workers, ultimately to let them get on with effective work.

The most successful leaders are also the most successful at getting people to get on with purposeful work (‘management’). As a leader you need to know the purpose, know the work, understand what people are grappling with and give them all the resources (including your own input AND allowing them to use their own brains to the full) to enable them to do it.

There is no magic formula except to do things which are relevant to purpose and the work. If your interpersonal skills are rusty (or non-existent) then you can get away with it if you do those first two things.



Grint, K. (2010) Leadership: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, Oxford UK.

Why diversity in people counts – it’s the system

Simon Black – 

Responding to variety is one thing; but a variety of perspectives is quite another challenge, for both practical reasons and ethical reasons (Rogers & Williams, 2010).

Let’s think practically first – our understanding of many things will be flawed if we only consider one point of view.  Perspectives are closely associated with what you value. Perceptions of value have implications for stakeholders and for science – do we judge our work outputs by our own perspectives – or do we work to the expectations, needs and priorities of the people experiencing those outcomes? In conservation this can be complicated.
There are also serious ethical implications in considering a diversity of perspectives. A person or a certain group of people could get harmed if you don’t see things through an alternative perspective. This is particularly important when working with local communities in wildlife areas – what will be important to sustain conservation success? That topic is worth a separate blog in its own right, but Jane Goodall has recently challenged us to stop thinking ‘West knows Best‘ – listening and understanding gives insight.
Aside from that, our effectiveness as people is influenced by our understanding of alternative perspectives. A wider perspective allows us to consider inter-relationships better: how does my work affect yours, who else might be impacted, what are their priorities?
Often, any changes we make in a system of work are not simply a matter of cause and effect – not as straightforward as ‘I do this, then they will do that‘.  It is not just about A+B =C. There may be unforeseen consequences: more of C may impact on D, E, or F. Using up B might cause problems for X and Y and so on.

Of course there are practical limits to what we can consider – we need to put boundaries around our thinking. Where we set those boundaries will depend on our perspective, or ideally the various perspectives that we are prepared to consider (by questioning our own assumptions, or by asking other people). Every world-view is restricted and limited in some way, so when leading we need to remain conscious that:

  • a good first step to seeing the wider ‘system’ is to see the world through the eyes of another,
  • any judgement of activity sets up a boundary of ‘worthwhile’ and ‘not important’,
  • we should carefully consider the implications of any boundary which we set.

Churchman, C.W. (1968) The Systems Approach. Delta, NY

Couch R. (2015) 6 spot on things Jane Goodall said about inequality and saving the planet. Nov 27

Heath C., and Heath, D. (2010) Switch: when change is hard, New York: Random House

Jacobs, C.J. (2009) Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science. Penguin Group Portfolio, NY

Rogers, P. and Williams, R. (2010) Using Systems Concepts in Evaluation, in Beyond Logframe: Using Systems Concepts in Evaluation,  N. Fujita (Editor). Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development, Tokyo.

The Details AND the Big Picture: how do we keep the balance?

Simon Black – 

A ‘helicopter view’ is an important capability for a conservation leader. The leader needs to be able to examine details of the programme, then position that knowledge in the context of the wider programme purpose and vision. This includes how budgets are organised, resources planned, goals set and how external partnership  are arranged.

With a helicopter view the leader is well placed to delegate and coach the team, to intervene and support where needed, to revisit, change or improve approaches where required. Most importantly the leader can see where ‘the way things are done’ helps (or doesn’t help) the achievement of the team’s purpose.

  • Consider both project details and the big picture
  • See and understand internal & external organizational dynamics.
  • Know projects’ sphere of influence—identify solvable problems.
  • Establish budgets and a clear fund-raising strategy.
  • Design financial/non-financial metrics to relate to conservation
  • Provide information, technology & resource to assist the work.
  • Encourage cooperation & sharing with partners to improve work.
  • Anticipate unexpected outcomes.
  • Be prepared to seek specialist advice from external sources.
  • Integrate flexible management with professional/scientific rigor.
  • Use data on staff, communities, or society if it helps the program.

Further Reading:

Black, S. A., Groombridge, J. J., & Jones, C. G. (2011a). Leadership and Conservation Effectiveness: Finding a Better Way to Lead.Conservation Letters, 4, 329-339.