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Carefully considering culture in conservation

As with any complex project, effective leadership is critical for positive outcomes of conservation programs.

While cultural differences in leadership styles and attributes have been thoroughly studied in business and politics, new research has found consideration of cultural differences in conservation leadership attributes is very limited in the current literature.

Conservation has been a rapidly growing field since the mid-1980s, but only recently have key attributes of successful leadership been documented.

Awareness and sensitivity of cultural differences is vital in projects, as cultural backgrounds can either facilitate or hinder conservation project outcomes – particularly when people from different backgrounds work together.

The researchers say as with any leadership, conservation leadership is complex and has to take into account gender ethnicity, geography, development, culture and politics.

“Conservation problems are often wicked problems, owing to the long lead times to solutions, complex interactions between people and issues, the need for multi-disciplinary integration, and confrontational settings,” say the authors of a new study.
More than half of the papers surveyed did not mention the influence of culture on conservation leadership.

The researchers found in their review that Western-based operation and communication strategies might fail particularly in areas that are culturally different from these models; given that messages cannot be clearly conveyed or that motivation strategies are not perceived as motivational. This lack of awareness might diminish or even prevent the successful outcome of a conservation project.

Another example is how cultures even define what a good leader is. Research in social psychology shows that while assertive and tough leaders may be more desired in Austria, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States. Leaders who seek consensus and are intuitive may be more desirable in others places like Costa Rica, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands.

Of the 15 papers surveyed, the research team found just over half (nine papers) did not mention the influence of culture on conservation leadership attributes.

The most mentioned leadership qualities across all the papers were;

  • Motivating others
  • Establishing a vision
  • Communication

While the least mentioned leadership attributes were;

  • Research skills
  • Risk assessment
  • Development fundraising

The authors recommend that in order to improve conservation leadership, especially in multi-national and cross-institutional project contexts, future research should urgently explore the relationship between conservation leadership attributes and cultural context, and that when working in a particular country, region or with a specific group of people, identifying drivers of values, motivation, communication styles and group dynamics can be crucial in positive outcomes. They conclude their review in emphasising the need for cultural awareness leadership training and education.

For more information contact lead author Dr Tanja Straka - straka@izw-berlin.de

Dr Tanja Straka

Author attributions: Tanja Straka, University of Melbourne, and Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin; Payal Bal, CEED and SEES, the University of Queensland, and School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Colleen Corrigan, CEED and SEES, the University of Queensland; Martina Di Fonzo, CEED, the University of Queensland, and DEFRA, London; Nathalie Butt, ARC CEED, the University of Queensland, and School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University.

A workshop organized by the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) Early Career Leadership Program provided the opportunity to develop the ideas behind this study.

Credits:

Created with images by nidan - "sunrise spring lake mood" • MonikaP - "rhino young animal eat" • IanZA - "elephant africa wet wild"

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