Zoos vs. Ecosystems: Jon Foley on the Importance of Networks in Leadership

Jon Foley (Photo by Josh Kohanek)

Jon Foley (Photo by Josh Kohanek)

Note from Kate: As the director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE), I’m interested in developing effective environmental leaders. In Boreas we emphasize that leadership is more than a set of skills; it’s a way of working. Networks are a key part of working effectively as a leader.

I’ve been inspired in this regard by Jon Foley, the director of IonE, a Leopold Leadership Fellow, and a recent recipient of the Heinz Prize in the Environment. I interviewed him about leadership and promising paths he sees for developing the next generation of leaders. This is the first in a series of posts drawn from our conversation.

One question I asked Jon was how, as an academic, he works in networks to help solve environmental challenges. Here’s what he had to say:

Confidence and license to try things

JF: Within the academic community things like the Leopold Leadership Program provide networks that universities sometimes don’t provide themselves very well. I remember when I did the Leopold training over ten years ago, it was with a cohort of 19 other people. It instantly bonded into group that became a go-to network of confidantes, advisers, friends, and champions for things that we wanted to do. That gave you license to try a little bit harder to do something a little different…. It’s the unusual couple of people in each institution who want to try out this crazy stuff… it’s kind of your tribe, so to speak.

Reaching beyond the academy

JF: What the Leopold program exposed us to was to really build your network of other folks outside the academy. Get out of the Ivory Tower as much as you can. Leopold exposed us to people in the media who became not just one-time acquaintances but eventually colleagues themselves: reporters who may use you as a source because they know you and trust you and your work; editors who recognize your work; people who ask you to write op-eds. That takes years to develop. But those are important nodes.

Defining your role: what to take on, and when to find partners

JF: I can’t reach the same number of people as a good op-ed writer can. Or a good media person can… Or, in businesses and government, there are key gatekeepers, decision-makers who are highly influential, who you might be able to reach. They can carry your message better than you can into halls of influence and decision-making and power that you might not even be able to enter. You have to figure out where the strategy is and who can help you get the job done.

Networks as ecosystems

JF: My sister-in-law once came up with this analogy: biodiversity matters, but if we’re all in a zoo, if we have two academics in a cage, and a couple policymakers in another cage, and couple reporters in some other cage, that’s not a vibrant ecosystem. What we need is them all interacting together like a real ecosystem. Again, that’s the idea that if we get out of our comfort zone and start circulating among unusual characters, we might find that a lot of interesting interactions are possible in very rich ways that we never thought were possible. I’ve certainly benefitted from the networks of other kinds of people that I’ve built up over the last couple years. I’d like to think I’m benefitting them. At least it seems so, since they keep referring more people to us and our institute. It looks like it’s going both ways. But boy, is it really different than anything the normal academy prepared me to do.

Networks as catalysts for better science

JF: The stuff I’m working on today has nothing to do with what I was doing ten years ago, or even five years ago. A lot of it was guided by the questions people have been asking over the years. It’s been driven more outside of the academy, rather than inside.

KK: So, you’d say the mutual network is making your science…

JF: Better.

Engagement, Not Outreach

JF: I hate the word “outreach,” because it’s a very static notion of knowledge. It assumes we have the knowledge inside the Ivory Tower: all we have to do is put up an antennae and broadcast it to the world, and we’re “outreaching,” telling people who don’t know stuff what we know. That’s so naïve and wrong. It’s mutual engagement — saying, “Hey I can help you, but you’re helping me, and let’s form a powerful, synergistic relationship somehow.” That’s where this networked leadership and engagement model really can be effective. It will make you a better scientist. It will make you a better scholar, thinker, teacher, and leader within your university. To those who used to argue that doing this stuff is sacrificing your science is total and utter bullsh*t. Because if you do this well, it will make you think more critically about the work you’re doing, why it’s relevant, how to communicate it better. It will certainly make you a better teacher, at least. And it will hopefully make you a better scientist. In my case, I think it did a lot.


Check out my next post for a conversation with Jon about leadership development in graduate education and beyond.

Kate Knuth, Program Director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She is pursuing a PhD in conservation biology. You can follow the Boreas Leadership Program and Kate on Twitter, @BoreasIonE and @KateKnuth.

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