“I would ask you, Julie, who are the seagulls in your life? How can you emulate the pelican behavior?"
This was Beverly Winterscheid, the founding partner of Center for Nature and Leadership, and Leadership Development Professor in the Bard Sustainability MBA, talking and, as always, prodding.
Winterscheid is known to challenge people to go deeper and question assumptions. I had just explained to her how I had witnessed a group of pelicans peacefully roosting together on a dock along the Saint Augustine Intracoastal Waterway. A few seagulls began pecking at the pelicans, squawking and completely interrupting the peace. Not one of the pelicans flinched, moved or even seems bothered by the annoying seagulls.
“What kind of learning, what kind of commitment do you want to make, Julie?” Winterscheid asks me.
Based out of Washington D.C., the Center for Nature and Leadership (CNL) specializes in nature-based leadership development. This is a new approach to human effectiveness that marries eco-psychology and personal leadership development with sensory experiences in the natural world. Winterscheid calls her work the ‘human side of biomimicry,’ connecting leaders to their highest strengths through intentional, structured fellowship with the earth.
Nature-based leadership development gives people a competitive advantage compared to others in being able to access the expertise and wisdom embedded in Nature which can be applied to human problems of all sorts.
Inspired by the leadership work of Margaret Wheatley, Otto Scharmer, and the eco-psychology work of Joanna Macy, Bill Plotkin, and others, Winterscheid developed the Center for Nature and Leadership as a vehicle for business executives to become more thoughtful about their heart and their work.
“We have to go outside to go inside. Time with nature brings quantum leaps in your purpose and empowerment. CNL designed leadership training to be the way nature intended: open, aware, and high performing. The work of CNL calls us to be us our best selves and in community with other fearless leaders who are doing the same things by making their best impact in the world. When people come back from time on the land they are confident, strong, and they make a difference in the workplaces,” Winterscheid explains.
CNL provides nature-based leadership development through in-person and online programming of special topic immersions, weekend retreats, and personal coaching including a program for twenty-somethings called “Path to Purpose.” Additionally, CNL hosts the Generative Council, a cross-sector, cross-generational executive council of women leaders from the across the country that meets twice a year in inspiring wild places like the Grand Tetons or the Oregon coast. Between the group gatherings, they are supported by an online community platform of leadership resources and monthly, one-hour calls. The Generative Council is co-guided by Darcy Stallings Winslow, Managing Partner of the Academy for Systemic Change.
A participant in the first Generative Council, Holly Meyer, Manager of Energy Policy & Sustainability at NW Natural in Portland, Oregon, described a leadership moment in the mountains of Wyoming. “I had been laying down, looking north at a mountain. I saw dozens of face-like images carved into the mountainside. Immediately, I thought of the faces of the people I’m serving and how I want to help the company see the customer’s face too. This moment was treasured in my heart and it gave me a stronger compass to where I needed to put my energies.”
Meyer took this vision of the customer and initiated a one-day, employee volunteer opportunity where a company team helped to install weatherization protection into the homes of lower-income customers. She has also become more intentional about her relationships with external organizations.
“I have a greater sense of interconnectedness. My work and leadership style now is so much more about listening and not reacting. Instead, I am looking for overlap and partnership . . . . Nature is so self-sustaining. No one can argue with the beauty and complexity. Also, it’s simplicity. There’s no waste. Nature operates perfectly. We [humanity] won’t ever function at a level like this so the more we can learn and experience from it, the more wisdom we can operate our life with. It’s there if you want it to teach you!” said Meyer.
In quietness, in inward reflection, and with acute observation, Winterscheid has led groups through mountain ranges, deserts, beaches, and even the urban gardens and parks of Washington D.C.
“First, I ask participants to turn off their clever mind and open up their senses to the land. I ask them to see, hear, and feel the earth around them. Then, we use nature as a mirror and model and ask a question each of us is holding about our work or leadership effectiveness. We wait and watch. Then, we gather back and speak what the land has given us. It is a natural trait of human beings to make meaning. A human being immersed in nature will speak meaning that is unified to their urban world and the wisdom they picked up from experience on land,” Winterscheid explains.
CNL was birthed during a solo camping trip Winterscheid took in the Appalachian Trail.
“Things were jammed up for me at work. I felt I wasn’t doing my best in a strategy problem. I was in conflict about how to design and implement an organizational restructuring. But during my time on the land, I saw myself in a larger, natural system. I sat there and immersed myself. I noticed how the trees were moving, how the systems interacted. I listened and watched. I was clear when I came home. I could see co-existence, fair and appropriate co-existence. It spurred me to think that was the way we need to operate in the company’s restructure. My values were re-aligned,” recounts Winterscheid. “When I came back to work, I was so clear, so creative, so confident. And, I paid attention to that. When I explained the breakthrough [I found on the land], people got it right away.
I want to encourage leaders that change happens one person at a time. The Center for Nature and Leadership is geared towards individuals who want greater alignment with their work and values, who wish to become more effective leaders in their chosen field or are transitioning to a socially-responsible encore career. CNL loves helping others bring their best selves forth in service to something larger than themselves. Experience in the natural world supports us doing that, ” Winterscheid says.