Catalyzing New Leadership in African Conservation

“ Leadership is not about myself; it’s about being a team player, mentor and building others as you grow .”

Leadership is not about myself; it’s about being a team player, mentor and building others as you grow.”

Few places have a more urgent need for vital and dynamic leadership on conservation issues than Africa. Across the continent societies and communities are undergoing a range of changes where locally rooted leadership is critical to solving a host of growing challenges.

With a shared recognition that addressing these challenges requires supporting and strengthening the leadership capabilities of individuals working across the region, The Nature Conservancy and Maliasili Initiatives, with the support of Reos Partners, are piloting an African Leadership Network initiative. The main purpose of the initiative is to support and strengthen a growing network of elite African conservation leaders, and to foster strong connections and collaborations within a growing cohort of African individuals and organizations.

The first gathering of the initial cohort – leaders from conservation and natural resource-focused NGOs working in Kenya, Tanzania and Namibia – took place in Kenya from August 17-20. During this time, a number of key themes emerged around the leadership challenges and imperatives facing African conservation, which will continue to shape the development of the program going forward.

1. Concepts of leadership

Leadership is different from simply being the ‘boss’.”

A central theme of the session was around how individuals conceptualize their own leadership roles within their organizations, fields, and networks. The discussions amongst participants emphasized the distinction between leadership and being a ‘leader’ in a position of power or authority. For many of the participants, this was a critical and foundational insight, to recognize the different ways that leadership can be provided, beyond being the head of an organization, a political or corporate official or executive, or otherwise being able to exercise power over others. “Leading from behind” and influencing others were new ways of conceptualizing leadership, which resonated with many participants.

2. Enabling and facilitating change

Leadership isn’t a title, it is about character or behavior.”

Drawing on the above understanding of leadership, an important set of discussions focused on ways to enable change in organizations and wider systems. One approach is finding a balance between ‘strategic’ and ‘intimate’ behavior. ‘Strategic’ ways of acting helps an organization or collaboration think and plan clearly about what to do, while ‘intimate’ ways of acting is central to building trust amongst different individuals within organizations, or across organizations, and is therefore central to leadership seeking change. Any leader aspiring towards systemic change and impact at scale must incorporate both the ‘strategic’ and the ‘intimate’ into their behavioral patterns.

3. Understanding and applying personal strengths

“It’s ok to focus on my strengths – even though they may not be traditional “leadership traits, I can still provide better leadership if I focus on these strengths rather than forcing certain approaches that don’t come naturally.”

Leadership is a mix of natural knowledge and passion and talent plus skills.”

While it may seem obvious, a foundation of leadership that is often overlooked is personal self-awareness – understanding one’s tendencies and behavioral patterns, instincts, and ways of thinking and acting. This is critical for knowing how to effectively interact with others, influence others, and also to build strong and dynamic teams with complementary skill sets.

The workshop employed a number of diagnostic tools to facilitate self-awareness of individual strengths and tendencies, tools that empower leaders to maximize their strengths, which ultimately are what put them in a position of leadership in the first place.

4. Prioritization and time management

“Building effective teams gives you an opportunity to strategize for the organization which is a great way to be assured of the future.”

For many of the participating leaders one of the greatest challenges is simply managing workloads and demands on their time. These challenges can lead to both personal burnout and failure to deliver on key strategic priorities, because of over-commitment or poor time and resource management.

These challenges were a recurrent theme during the session and will be revisited during the second workshop in November. One of the exercises deployed by the training facilitator, John Griffin of Reos Partners, was an ‘Aikido’ group exercise that provided an experiential simulation for managing multiple demands and which led into a discussion of time management and prioritization.

5. Networking networks

“This has been a break from normal work pressure and a good forum for interacting and exchanging ideas. Let’s keep the fire burning.”

The leadership initiative being piloted this year was born in large part from a belief that a powerful untapped asset in the leadership development of key African conservation organizations lies in enabling greater peer-to-peer learning, interaction, and group solidarity.

As a result, an idea tested in this first workshop was the notion that a network comprised of leading African organizations could play a powerful role in facilitating collective learning and action around shared issues and interests. At the end of the workshop, there was strong interest in the potential for this kind of network, and indeed already a range of plans are under development for exchanges between organizations. One aspect of this were ideas being developed for ‘networking amongst networks’ such as NACSO in Namibia, Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, and the Community Wildlife Management Areas Consortium – all of which are network organizations comprised of members at the community level or NGOs working on community-based natural resource management.

LeadershipJessie Davie