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

Leading from the Start

Sonja A. Christensen

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781934874608.ch30

Considering yourself a leader from the very beginning of your career seems almost antithetical. Nevertheless, as an early-career professional, this is the best time to acquire and act on the leadership skills one will be relying on for a successful and impactful career in natural resources. Typically, early-career leadership falls into one of two categories: (1) a person has a newly acquired leadership title with relatively little leadership experience, or (2) a person has leadership intent and interest with no title or explicit leadership role. With initiative and tenacity, I believe these challenging situations can become launching pads for extraordinary leadership impact from individuals of any background, identity, or experience level. I will speak to each of these situations from personal experience in leading from the start. While working on my master’s degree, I applied for my first full-time, permanent job in my profession. My first thought was “Yes! This is a dream job!’ My second thought was “What were they thinking? I’m way too young!”

The idea was to get experience with interviewing for a job that I certainly had trained for and desired, but I had no expectation of landing the position. I happily accepted the position as a statewide deer project leader at 25 years old, even though I was still finishing my master’s degree. What came next provided more experience than I could have ever imagined. Working as a state-wide deer program leader for a state wildlife agency is notoriously difficult. As a rule, few people are ever happy with the current deer population. Different public stakeholders may think there are way too many deer or far too few, and the options for addressing concerns regarding a deer population may not be satisfying to those unfamiliar with wildlife management (or perhaps even to those that are very familiar). Further, I had never had a leadership role that looked like this. Imposter syndrome quickly set in. I had experience with another state wildlife agency and solid academic training in wildlife management and deer ecology. Would that be enough to convince a room full of 60-year-old hunters that I knew what I was talking about? Fortunately, I was in good hands with my colleagues and mentors, and I was able to jump into the role quickly and successfully.

As a young professional catapulted into a role with state-wide responsibility on a contentious topic, my learning was often akin to drinking from a fire hose. Over the next few years of working in my position, the following key leadership lessons emerged.