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

Practicing Leadership with Persistence, Authenticity, and Practice

Sara Hughes

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781934874608.ch29

I first began to understand the importance of leadership for environmental sustainability as a fourth-year fisheries and wildlife undergraduate student at Michigan State University, and this understanding turned out to be something that would change the trajectory of my career and life. At the time, I was actively feeding my growing interest in the social and political dimensions of environmental conservation. In the fall of 2003, I applied to attend a leadership training for women in sustainability run by the National Wildlife Federation. The program brought women undergraduate students from around the country to Washington, D.C. for a week-long immersive training in mobilizing themselves and others for action. One of the requirements of the program was that we return to our home campuses and organize an event that would highlight sustainability issues we cared about and help people identify ways they could help.

At the time, I had no experience with this type of campus engagement. I was a good student and passionate about the environment but had typically shied away from extracurriculars. But the National Wildlife Federation leadership training, and its charge, had convinced me that taking a more active role was critical, and something I might ultimately be good at. The challenge was fundraising for the event: my Midwestern upbringing had made it easy for me to make small talk at a potluck but difficult for me to ask people for money. Eventually, I found myself in the office of the chair of Michigan State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, sitting across from Professors William Taylor and Kelly Millenbah. I left the meeting with the money I needed for our sustainability event and the beginning of a professional relationship that set me on my current path.

The importance and challenges of leadership in environment and sustainability are just as clear to me today as they were in 2003. Since that fateful training workshop in Washington, D.C. and serendipitous meeting in the chair’s office, I have had many opportunities to learn and grow as a leader and to observe and experience the leadership approaches of others. I often look to the research and writing of Brené Brown for a deeper dive into the study and practice of leadership. Brown (2018) defines a leader as someone who “takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” Incorporating these skills and strength for my own effective leadership is something I approach with a learning and experimental mindset. Fortunately, leadership does appear to be both a learned and accessible skill. From my vantage point, there are three ingredients that help build leadership: persistence, authenticity and self-awareness, and practice.