The Latest News in Conservation

Safeguarding our Legacy

What’s the scariest thing imaginable for those of us impassioned about wildlife and hunting and the outdoors? For many, it’s the idea that our natural resource legacy will not be left in safe hands.

Sportsmen and wildlife professionals recognize that we are in a new era — a time in which the organizational guardians of our natural resource legacy find themselves facing unprecedented challenges in a rapidly changing landscape. These challenges are exacerbated by the immense leadership void created from vast numbers of retiring baby boomers. 

These realities brought forth an epiphany in 2004 when many top leaders in natural resource conservation saw that an unparalleled solution was needed to fill the imminent leadership void. Same old, same old just wasn’t going to cut it this go round. These visionary leaders, that included Boone and Crockett President Lowell Baier, took action and committed to creating together a world-class, truly exceptional leadership development initiative – the National Conservation Leadership Institute (NCLI).


Now in its fourth year of operation, the NCLI has become institutionalized as conservation’s “war college,” empowering its graduates to more effectively lead natural resource organizations into the future. “The NCLI has far exceeded our expectations,” says Dr. Sally Guynn, the NCLI’s Executive Director. “We have something here that is so much more than another good program or training – we are seeing something extraordinary with the NCLI – something both powerful and enduring.”

So What’s Extraordinary About It?

A number of things are unique about the NCLI – for starters, the design, its deliberate participant diversity, and a departure from teaching leadership as a set of traits or skills. Guynn recollects, “We partnered with two of the best from Harvard University’s Kennedy School, Marty Linsky and Hugh O’Doherty, to facilitate adaptive leadership™ as the ‘connective tissue’ with all the other pieces we had in the NCLI design. Adaptive leadership is the conceptual “glue” that creates a stickiness to the learning and is far more practical than academic.”

There is also an extraordinary result when you put highly motivated natural resource professionals together with some of conservation’s living legends and some of today’s leading edge thinkers on leadership. You get provocation, challenge, growth, and a lifelong fellowship. That’s been the case so far with those graduating from the Institute.

Another departure point for the NCLI is that it was designed around the need to equip our future leaders with a different lens – to see leadership as a verb, dynamic and adaptive, messy and nonlinear. And, as the Fellows can tell you, the exercise of effective leadership more often than not requires much more than whipping out the perfect tool from a leadership toolbox.

Alumni Tony Schoonen, Chief of Staff, Boone and Crockett Club, puts it this way: “Attending the National Conservation Leadership Institute was a life changing experience from a couple of different perspectives. First of all, it shored up and strengthened the core principles that I have always believed adaptive leadership consisted of but never had clearly defined in terms of concise application. Secondly, once you are an NCLI Fellow you have a national network of career professionals with diverse backgrounds to lean on when gathering input and data to make informed decisions. These individuals are not casual acquaintances. Instead they represent a distinguished brethren who possess the common thread of concern for the future of wildlife and wild places and the willingness and determination to work together and assume leadership roles to ensure a wildlife legacy for the next generation.”

Since 2005 this groundbreaking leadership development initiative has evolved from an exciting concept into a highly successful, world-class leadership development experience serving diverse conservation organizations throughout the nation. Far more than training, a workshop, or a template, the term “an experience” is a more definitive description for the NCLI.

Each year, from February to mid-May, individuals are nominated online at by their Executive Directors of state fish and wildlife agencies, federal natural resource agencies, NGOs, tribes, and natural resource-related industries to compete for one of thirty-six highly sought after spaces in the NCLI. The nominees are seen as possessing the “it” factor, or a high potential for leveraging their leadership capacity.

Once accepted, the Fellows begin an intense journey through 11 days of residency followed by five and a half months working on a real leadership challenge facing their respective organizations. Their journey is one of illustrating, examining, and questioning beliefs and practices; unearthing and then exploring deeply-held assumptions about leadership; and experimenting in real time with the ideas they talk about. They also learn how to avoid one of the greatest obstacles to exercising effective leadership, that is, treating adaptive challenges as technical problems.

So, Where’s the Value?

Overall, in the short term, qualitative and quantitative measures indicate remarkable increases in the 30% range in the Fellows’ leadership performance, capacity, interpersonal skills, managing change, ability to create a motivating work environment, and their inter-organizational professional trust network. When taking into consideration the Fellows accepted into the Institute are already high-performers, these numbers are quite amazing. In general, there is a 78% increase in the Fellows’ ability to differentiate problems that require adaptive solutions from problems that require technical solutions, ultimately leading to increased leadership effectiveness.

 High trust-building melds the Fellows together as they go through the NCLI creating a tight inter-organizational professional network for each Fellow. It truly is a fellowship, there to help and support them, sometimes to comfort them, as they engage in future leadership challenges within their organizations.

A number of common themes echo the way the Fellows describe their NCLI experience. Alumni Ken McDonald, Chief of Wildlife for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says “The lessons learned at NCLI not only included some very relevant instruction regarding leadership, but also priceless lessons learned from the participants who have been working on extremely complex natural resource issues. Through the NCLI, I gained a suite of life-long teachers and mentors who can help me with issues based on their knowledge and experience.”

Alumni Dr. Jon Gassett, Director of Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, says “For me, the NCLI was a life-changing experience and I’m sending as many of my staff every year as they will allow. I’m seeing these high-level staff coming back and performing to an even higher level. The NCLI is truly a remarkable program in leadership development. It really merits the support of the full conservation community.”

Alumni and Chief of Law Enforcement for the Wisconsin DNR, Randy Stark, describes the NCLI this way: “The NCLI experience has been incredibly valuable to me both personally and professionally. Rarely a day goes by that I don't use the skills and knowledge learned at NCLI. The Adaptive Leadership Model and the integrated manner in which the experience is transmitted leaves you with an experiential base of knowledge to draw on that greatly aids in making sense of situations, recognizing when leadership is necessary, and anticipating predictable events that will occur once leadership is exercised. Given the ubiquitous presence of change in society today, the NCLI experience is critical to leading organizations through the new realities they face in the future." 

Increases in Fellows’ courage and self-confidence are other important benefits to the sponsoring organizations that need their people to step up when leadership calls. Finally, there is an unmistakable buzz going around about the Institute. It’s a renewed vigor for making a difference. It’s a good fit with Boone and Crockett Clubbers who have been into making a difference since the Teddy days. It’s a very good sign indeed that the NCLI is on to something extraordinary for safeguarding our legacy.

The NCLI is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization sponsored by the generous support of some of America’s leading conservation organizations including Boone and Crockett Club. Support from sponsors and individual gift giving keeps tuition to a minimum. See for more information.