Nature ConnectionRewildingWild Mind

How You Can Become a Nature Based Leader

By November 25, 2014 3 Comments

In today’s chaotic world, it sometimes can feel as if the world is lacking truly effective leadership. Global news columns are filled with stories of climate change, world poverty, environmental pollution, geo-political wars and terror in the name of religion. We know in our hearts and minds that new leadership is needed. Even our focused world of education is rife with challenges never for seen in our past. We scramble and struggle to prepare students for a world that is changing beyond our capacity to keep up and stay current. New instructional technologies, new testing requirements, new evaluation models and new common core curriculum have left us all feeling a bit exasperated. What we need to stay new and fresh may have been in front of us all along; a nature fueled leader.

A nature based leader is a style of leadership that draws on the power of nature to inspire, inform and create a world not absent of nature, but in union together. A nature based leader is a leader (school based, religious, spiritual or political) past or present whose leadership is directly impacted by their time spent in nature. The web connecting their thoughts, policies and ideas to their nature based experience completely visible to those who notice. Like the morning dew exposing an invisible spider web, the following leadership examples will illuminate the power and impact time in nature can have on leadership. Each historic person is used as an “archetype” and will serve only as an introduction to the different types of Nature Based Leaders.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt-Inspired by Nature

As a young boy, Franklin Roosevelt spent many summers on Campobello Island, a small Canadian island in the Bay of Fundy. His parents selected the island for the wealth of outdoor recreation. On the island they sailed, golfed, hiked and canoed in the beautiful rugged outdoors. It was clear his experiences impacted his role as one of the most influential Presidents of The United States. The Roosevelt Campobello International Park web site states, “As President, his attitudes and policies toward Canada and toward international cooperation were undoubtedly influenced by personal relationships and close ties with Canadians. His natural resource based policies no doubt reflected in part his great love of Campobello’s rich natural heritage. And his policies toward Native Americans were a reflection of his associations with the Passamaquoddy Indians he came to know and respect at Campobello” ( He was taught how to canoe by the artist and Passamaquoddy guide, Tomah Joseph. The summer after his 1933 visit to the island, the Indian Reorganization Act was signed into law. The Act was designed to limit the transfer of communal tribal lands to individual members and provide monies to purchase free land and restore them to tribal status. Ultimately, the goal of the Indian Reorganization Act was to encourage American Indian sovereignty, self-government and to reduce the taking of Indian tribal lands. No doubt influenced by his compassion for his friend, Tomah Joseph, and for all of the Native Americans walking between two cultures.

An educational leader can learn a lot from FDR. There was a transparency and directness with FDR cultivated by his time in nature that influenced his policy. Even his “Fireside Chats” gave hope and calm to Americans suffering through the Great Depression. How did he do it? FDR used concrete and simple language that reflected who he was as a person and was apparent in his policies and goals of the New Deal. An FDR inspired educational leader may ask thought provoking questions that center on directness and transparency. What is your 21st century philosophy of education? What programs have you brought to your school that reflect you and are good for kids? Are you transparent and direct in all of your communication? These questions are a must for a Nature Based Leader channeling the lessons from FDR and others. Like the name FDR itself, does your staff and community of stakeholders know what your “letters” stand for?

John Fitzgerald Kennedy- Nature as a Metaphor for Life

In his new book, “Victura: The Kennedys, a Sailboat, and the Sea“, (Graham, 2014), James W. Graham tells the story of the Kennedys, their tight knit family and how their connection to the sea by a common passion of sailing has permeated their collective history. He states, “Sailing influenced how they thought, how they competed, the content of public speeches, how as a family they celebrated happy events or managed grief, how they grew close to one another.”
In their family of nine, the topic of sailing was an ongoing discussion as Graham reveals. “They would constantly ask one another, What made us lose a race? What gear needed replacing? At what cost? What sailing instructors should we hire? What kind of sails? How do we launch the spinnaker faster? Who can we get to crew? How fast the wind and how high the waves?”

These are the types of questions a future President of the United States may ask of his cabinet. These are also the type of questions a nature based leader may utilize with a sea loving principal to discuss with their staff. The sailing related questions can now turn into questions about the school like, “Why didn’t we achieve our goals last year? What programs/staffing/schedules do we need to upgrade or replace? How much will they cost? Do we need outside consultant help? What kind of new programs do we need to bring to our school in reading, writing, math or RTI? How can we intervene and help struggling students quicker? What new teachers should we hire? What obstacles will we be facing this year in budgeting, programming, staffing, evaluation and testing?” In this way, a nature based leader, A.K.A. Principal, draws on their experience in nature to frame innovative questions to elicit new answers to difficult questions facing all schools in this country. JFK framed his perspectives on life through the lens of the sea. What part of nature can you use to create metaphorical questions that will dig, probe and enlighten in ways your old questions could not? How can you communicate more effectively using nature based metaphors?

Harriet Tubman: Knowing the Earth to Become a Legend

We have all heard the stories of Harriet Tubman and the courage and leadership she exhibited by making 19 trips back to the South and freeing over 300 slaves. Courage that is even more pronounced knowing she had reached freedom in Pennsylvania and still decided to go back and rescue others. Her strength and stamina were legendary as was her knowledge of nature. She learned from her father how to move about in the woods quietly, how to forage to identify edible plants and berries, the sounds birds made when alarmed, the side of the tree that moss grows on and how to identify and locate the North Star to guide her journey back north(Ruffin, K. 2010). Without her intimate knowledge of nature, her history and the collective history of those she saved may not have happened and the abolitionist movement would have lost an immense force of love, courage, endurance and grace.

Harriet Tubman preferred to work outdoors instead of inside performing domestic house duties. It was in the outdoors where she developed her strength and stamina while working cutting timber with her Father to be delivered to shipyards in Baltimore. Whereas FDR channeled his time in nature to direct policy initiatives and JFK used the sea and sailing as a metaphor for his entire existence; Harriet Tubman’s experience in nature translates into one thing, survival skills which form the basis of “thriving” skills. A Harriet Tubman inspired Nature Based Leader may ask themselves the following questions: What is the current “landscape” my school resides within? What is the interplay of the town, community, Board of Education, and staff like? What is working? What is not? In order to navigate this terrain, what “survival” skills do I need to survive and thrive? How am I with social media? Do I know the latest trends in Web 2.0 websites and mobile applications? How am I with budgeting, staffing, technology, scheduling, testing and safety? How am I with STEM initiatives in my school?

Sagefire Institute: Nature Based Leadership and Coach Training

The previous case examples illustrate how powerful nature can be in framing a leadership style that draws on nature to develop new ideas and inspire others by communicating with natural metaphors that connect with all people.

The next question then is how can all leaders use nature based leadership concepts to strengthen and add range of perspective to their own style. The answer is simple. You have to spend more time in nature. Sagefire Institute is a leader in helping people become better leaders through their powerful and simple nature based leadership programs. Michael and Lynn Trotta from Sagefire Institute have created a whole life around helping people grow, lead and become their best selves through nature based coaching and leadership training programs. Their programs center on clients developing their awareness through “Core Routines” that draw people closer to nature (Trotta, Sagefire Institute, 2014). The closer relationship results in a deep reservoir of nature based metaphors and experiences people can use to solve problems, develop new awareness of their personal “blind spots” to grow and vision new dreams and goals for themselves and their schools. The “Core Routines” encompass activities like journaling in in nature, learning survival skills, buying and learning from field guides, tracking animals, sense meditation, learning bird language, Sitting on Purpose (A.K.A. Sit Spotting) and more. For example, Sit Spotting requires an individual to sit for thirty days in the same spot in nature for at least twenty minutes per day. The benefits of all these practices deepen one’s relationship to nature allowing an individual’s mind to quiet down, notice and observe more while feeling a greater sense of purpose. More importantly, Sit Spotting allows one to make time for themselves; a practice in this rushed and hectic world long forgotten, yet so important in recharging our inner guides.

There is so much a nature based leader can apply to their jobs and life if they do the “dirt” time and get outdoors. No matter what your problem, nature has a solution if you spend the time listening and waiting. The antidote for Poison Ivy is Jewelweed and coincidentally they often grow near one another in the forest. For every “problem” apparent in nature, there is a “solution” created by a cohabitating, animal, plant or organism. Unfortunately, our schools systems are such that all problems require immediate solutions and that our evaluations are contingent upon making big changes in test scores or building morale. However, nature teaches us there is always a waiting period. Any big change in nature is preceded by a wait. A budding flower, a summer thunderstorm, the warmth of the morning sun, a nest being built or the changing seasons all have us waiting, listening and learning. While you are waiting for one of your ideas to flower, for the much needed summer “funding” thunderstorm or the new school year “sun” to come up, why don’t you take some time to get outside and see what kind of nature based leader you are destined to become.

In the words of George Washington Carver,

“I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”

Now put this down and go get some bio-inspiration!

1. Trotta, Michael and Lynn. (2014) Sagefire Institute. Sagefire Institute, 19 May 2014. Web. 19 May 2014.
2. Graham, W. James (2014).Victura: The Kennedys, A Sailboat and The Sea. An Imprint of University Press New England.
3. © 2010 All Rights Reserved
4. Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions by Kimberly N. Ruffin
The University of Georgia Press, Athens and London, 2010 Athens, Ga. 30602, Loc. 956 of 2747
Digital Edition ISBN #978-0-8203-3753-1
5. George Washington Carver

Author Chris Bickel

I’m a father, husband, brother, nature based coach in training, certified teacher and educational administrator, curriculum specialist, idea generator and a creator of writings and poems inspired by nature. I am a former Fellow with Earthwatch and author of The Nestseekers, a children’s book about human and environmental interaction.

More posts by Chris Bickel
  • Dawn King

    Great article Chris well done!!

  • Heidi B.

    New ways of thinking about, and inviting, leadership in our world are so vital…thanks for putting it on the table here! Afterall, we ARE nature, so if nature doesn’t inform our choices and leaders, we’re flying pretty blind 😉

    • Chris B.

      Thank you both for reading!