Nature’s Powerful Lessons for Leaders of Sustainable Enterprises
One of the most engaging and fascinating aspects of the business world is the way in which diverse types of learning and experience can contribute to creating successful enterprises.
Sound business practices, rooted in practical, empirical analysis, are certainly necessary, yet not sufficient. Passion-fueled, purpose-driven, results-oriented organizations also require leadership – and in my experience, organizations of this type are often led by people who bring an outlook of humility and inspiration to everything they do, and help their co-workers do the same by infusing those qualities (along with sound business practices) throughout their operations.
How Do We Learn to Do This?
Every leader follows a different path, but for many of us, especially in the sustainability community, Nature can be an unsurpassed teacher of these essential qualities of humility and inspiration, while also offering insights into good business decisions.
This perspective was brought home to me one crisp, clear Alaska morning in 2004. I had traveled the night before with some colleagues by road and small plane to a remote lodge near Mount Denali, at the foot of a smaller adjacent peak called Mount Quigley. The day was so inviting that I bolted my coffee, laced up my boots, and set out ahead of my companions, eager to climb and, with luck, get a glimpse of the often cloud-shrouded Denali.
The ascent went smoothly, and as I neared Quigley’s summit and the trail began to flatten, I paused. My companions were far behind, and I felt full of myself, that the day was mine, and that I had secured a victory.
Just then, I had a sense that I was no longer alone, and glanced instinctively to the south. My eyes first looked horizontally… and then up, and up, and up, and up, at 18,000 vertical feet of snow fields, glaciers, rock faces, a gleaming, white magnificence in the morning sunlight.
In that instant, I realized I had done nothing in climbing Quigley. In fact, everything I had done in my five-plus decades felt utterly insignificant. I was experiencing, simultaneously, total humility and unbounded inspiration, absolute and overwhelming. And that perspective is one that I’ve sought to bring to everything I’ve done since.
Today, as CEO of Great Blue Heron LLC, I have the pleasure of working with business and organizational clients who (like the clients of EarthShift Global) embrace the tenets of sustainability and responsible Earth stewardship. In addition to my Alaskan experience, I draw on my managerial background (including presidencies of three different universities) and my education and work in applied ecology and forestry. My usual first step is to help my clients view their enterprise as an organism within an ecosystem, and understand the enterprise environment, including its potential, limits, and risks.
This framework makes lessons from Nature tremendously valuable in strategy and decision-making. A particularly useful one involves envisioning two identical acorns - one gets buried in the rich loam of an east-facing concave lower slope, the other in an exposed, convex, west-facing upper slope. The first has a potentially bright future, and may even become a Mighty Oak, while the second is doomed by adverse exposure; shallow, dry, and nutrient-impoverished soil; and persistent strong winds.
The lesson for managers and leaders is that, among the many facets of the business ecosystem, few are more important than location. This is why I urge my clients to define their dream for their enterprise, and understand that aspirations, however strong, cannot overcome the fixed limits imposed by the conditions and available resources in their location.
These are just a couple of examples of why I believe that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in, or powerfully inspired by, Nature. And no enterprise is better suited for the application of Nature’s wisdom and inspiration than one fundamentally committed to sustainability. May your own life and work be Nature-inspired!
About the Author — Guest Post: Stephen B. Jones, CEO, Great Blue Heron LLC
Holder of a bachelor's degree in forestry and doctorate in applied ecology, Steve is devoting his life to championing the cause of Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. He founded the Nature Based Leadership Institute at Antioch University New England in 2015 while serving as that institution’s president -- his third university presidency – after thirty-two years in higher education and over a decade in the paper and allied-products manufacturing industry. He founded Great Blue Heron LLC to further his goals of enhancing lives and enterprise success while sowing the seeds for responsible Earth stewardship.
— Photo by Flickr user Harvey Barrison used under Creative Commons