Lessons in Leadership: Integrating Courage, Vision, and Innovation for the Future of Sustainable Fisheries

Embracing Leadership-A Personal Reflection

Vanessa Hull

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781934874608.ch16

I am 6 years old and sitting in my pajamas next to my birthday present—my very own life-sized giant panda stuffed animal. I remember vividly opening my eyes in my little yellow house in suburban Connecticut that morning and staring in disbelief at the replica of the black and white creature that had captured my fascination, thinking that this was most definitely the best day of my young life. It seems as if I blinked just once or twice and then found myself at age 22, stepping out of a car after driving for hours along beautiful winding mountains in the far-away country of China and looking up at a bamboo forest above me. I wondered whether the black and white mythical animals enshrouded in the forest knew I was there, a visitor from across the world who came to study them. My life in many ways felt like it had all been preparation up until that moment.

What happened next was a long and unexpected journey that I find myself reliving whenever I peruse my treasured collection of vivid photographs. In one of my favorite photos of the years I would later spend in China, I am a Ph.D. student standing in the bucket of a large and very dirty dump truck, lined up alongside a group of kind-hearted Chinese men, all beaming at the camera. We are covered in dirt and exhausted after hiking for more than 8 hours through thick bamboo forest in a nature reserve. We are in the midst of a surreal undertaking and no one knows if we will succeed. We are attempting to capture wild giant pandas in efforts to track them with global positioning system collars. It was not going well. We were failing. In fact, we had failed for almost 3 years. Scanning the group of dirty and smiling faces, if one tried to pick out who was the leader of the group, I would presumably be the least likely candidate. On the surface, I did not even belong in the picture, a young and often timid American woman who was seemingly out of place. Yet I was the unlikely leader, just trying to find my way and to orchestrate a project that was so much bigger than myself, much like the giant life-sized panda replica that I worshiped as a child.

Having stumbled into leadership in this very unorthodox way, I learned how to be a leader over time by showing up, making mistakes, taking chances, and continuing to believe that I belonged. I am now an assistant professor who teaches and conducts research on coupled human and natural systems around the world. I will always be fueled by my deep connection to the giant panda, but I have also had opportunities to work on other species and in complex systems that face similar challenges with negotiating sustainability in a globalized world where relationships between people and nature are nuanced and intertwined. I have been humbled by research opportunities I have been afforded involving the complex challenges facing the world’s water bodies, where balancing competition between growing water demands for agriculture, energy, and a myriad of other needs is a daunting task.