Fundamentals of Western Conservation Leadership: Through the Looking Glass

The purpose of this course is to build the adaptive capacity of conservationists in the western U.S. and Canada to address uncertain and complex wildlife management, community, and landscape-scale challenges by learning leadership principles and practices that focus on the system and the self. As the name suggests, a looking glass will be created through which participants explore differing beliefs, values, and mindsets related to how to make progress and mobilize others on conservation issues where a diversity of perspectives is represented. The course is taught using adaptive leadership and systems thinking frameworks. 

New! After piloting this course for three years, we have reviewed surveys and feedback from participants and alumni and will be making some changes to our curriculum. We are in the process of creating a strategic framework for the program with an evaluation of how this course and others are essential to creating conservation impact for the future.

Course Dates

Session 1: October 27-November 1, 2024 (in-person)
Session 2: February 3-6, 2025 (virtual-Zoom)
Session 3: May 12-16, 2025 (in-person)

Required monthly team and coaching sessions between trainings plus two webinars between sessions (approximately 15-20 hours total).

  • 13 training days with global and national experts in leadership development and conservation practice.
  • Team-based coaching support to create an immersive learning experience.
  • Networking and capacity-building within a Western leadership community.
  • Leadership development resources and materials for ongoing work, including a 1-year subscription to Kansas Leadership Center’s Your Leadership Edge.
  • Introduce participants to a shared leadership language, set of principles, and competencies;
  • Expand the adaptive capacity of participants to navigate uncertainty and conflict, mobilize others, manage self, and intervene skillfully on multiple conservation issues;
  • Acquire a wider set of behaviors and new mental models to make progress on western conservation challenges; and,
  • Empower participants to collaborate and build relationships across a diversity of perspectives within and across agencies and organizations.

Session 1:

  • Create the holding environment: presence; validation/seeing others and making them feel seen; reflective practice
  • Distinguish between technical and adaptive challenges
  • Observation, interpretation, and intervention
  • Move between the balcony and dance floor
  • Distinguish between leadership and authority
  • Productive zone of disequilibrium: raising and lowering heat
  • Energize others by working across factions
  • Build tolerance for uncertainty and conflict
  • Orient to western conservation challenges as cases for learning and practice

Session 2:

  • Hold to purpose
  • Understand process challenges
  • Manage self: know your strengths, vulnerabilities, and triggers
  • Immunity to Change/emotional agility
  • Practice intervening skillfully

Session 3:

  • Systems thinking, conservation relevancy, and collaboration
  • Storytelling to energize others
  • Courageous conversations/deep listening (Ladder of Inference)
  • Finding sanctuary
  • Building a community of practice and partnerships

This course is taught using adaptive leadership and systems thinking frameworks. The adaptive leadership framework, pioneered by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and colleagues at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, begins by orienting people to the differences between adaptive and technical problems and puts the adaptive challenge at the center of the work of leadership.

Most collaborative leadership theories are incomplete in encompassing the realities of deep change with stakeholder engagement and loss within a system as well as the political realities of organizations (Rasmussen and Raei, 2022). Adaptive leadership stipulates that people don’t resist change, they resist loss. Also, importantly, adaptive leadership distinguishes between leadership and authority. Leadership is an activity that anyone can undertake from any place in a system or group. Frequently confused with positions of authority, leadership is not a role or a title.

WCLDP course

Additionally, the course also weaves in elements of systems thinking theory–the ability to understand an interconnected set of elements in such a way as to achieve a desired purpose, the difference between the status quo and espoused purpose, and the reconciliation of differences between the two. Using elements of systems thinking, we examine the cohort as a living system with a complexity of relationships, patterns and processes, feedback loops, and the capacity to learn through the tensions of change. (For more information on systems thinking, see Donella Meadows, Peter Senge, Margaret Wheatley, and/or Michael Goodman)

Both frameworks–adaptive leadership and systems thinking–are important to motivate people to change, catalyze collaboration and understanding about how they contribute to the system in which they are a part, create system-wide impact, and continuous learning/adaptation through reflection and experimentation.

Western Conservation Leadership Development Program - CIPCase-In-Point Method
Importantly, this course is different from other professional development training in that we use Case-In-Point (CIP) in various aspects of the course to teach leadership. CIP is an immersive and experiential methodology for teaching leadership by experiencing, recognizing, naming, and reflecting on essential leadership concepts as the group experiences them in real-time.

The classroom becomes a laboratory for learning where the facilitator orchestrates the holding environment to spotlight the group’s expectations, assumptions, interactions, and behaviors as they relate to aspirations and ideals. Groups are often not only forced to confront how their own behaviors contribute to the “mess” or challenge as it exists in western conservation, but also explore the adoption of new behaviors that represent a new way forward. Emergence of patterns are surfaced and the question is asked: “What does this moment illustrate that is relevant both to the learning and to the practice of leadership in the participants’ lives?”

CIP is an evolving practice and often creates a wide range of responses, especially since it deliberately challenges the authority relationship in the room by calling out inequities and power dynamics. Some participants in this course and others like it have experienced anxiety and concerns about the teaching methods as they are confronted with dynamics spotlighted within the room, within themselves, and/or general distress by the group. These concerns are real given the fragility of the systems in which we work and the conflicts and trauma that surround each person.

In the spirit of continuous improvement, program developers and instructors are committed to understanding concerns and value participants’ feedback. As we hold the important work of adaptation, we see growing evidence that our conservation systems are in need of better ways to train the mind to assess the systems in which one lives, works, and serves. And this training does just that.

In 2024-2025, we will use CIP in certain modules with enhanced communication; fortify the holding environment in a way that puts the adaptive challenges and issues at the center of learning about leadership; build safe and courageous spaces through additional small group opportunities to debrief sessions; generate learning about validation through the process; and support participants so they are lifted to new heights based on the experience. As participants move through this powerful learning journey, they begin to better see their systems–and themselves–with increased awareness about processes, power structures, and patterns that are alive and creating the current system in which they are operating to determine purposeful interventions for change.

We strongly encourage applicants to learn more about the course experience by talking to their supervisors, program staff, and/or alumni to discern whether this course is for them. We can also make recommendations on other professional development training opportunities aligned with specific goals or interests.

“Be prepared to practice leadership, be vulnerable, and actively participate!”

“This is not a series of power points and readings. If you aren’t prepared to immerse yourself, then don’t bother.”

“If any part of the course description intrigues you, apply! This is the kind of course that will both transform your understanding of your work, your ability to make change, and the future that is possible for the West.”

“It was unquestionably life-changing.”

“It’s all about you. If you don’t want to critically examine yourself and your role in leadership, this course is not the course for you. It’s a program, not a training, so manage your expectations (preconceived notions) coming in or be prepared to be disappointed.”

“I have developed a better understanding about my relationship with authority and how much I felt the need for approval and validation in so many areas.”

“I’ve thought a lot about the values and experiences that influence me and my biases. I am aware of who I am spending time with and how that influences the way I think about things.”

“I’m much less worried about saying the wrong thing and knowing that my perspective matters even if it may be conflictual.”

“I joined the course to be more impactful in conservation.”

“The Fundamentals of Western Conservation Leadership course was life-changing for me. I learned just as much about myself as I did about working on adaptive challenges. You have to commit your time and energy to the course. It was challenging, rewarding, and transformational.”

Western Conservation Leadership Development Program
Western Conservation Leadership Development Program

Photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife


Arbor Day Farm Nestled in Nebraska City, Nebraska, Arbor Day Farm encompasses 260 acres of natural beauty and historical significance. This national historic treasure is home to Lied Lodge, the one-of-a-kind Tree Adventure, the Apple House Market, and Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. The training will be held at Lied Lodge. The nearest airports are Omaha (OMA) and Lincoln (LNK), just under one hour from the lodge.

Cost: $8,500 for tuition plus travel costs to Sessions 1 and 3

A limited amount of scholarship funds are available to promote the inclusivity of underrepresented partners. For more information, please click here.

Time Commitment: This course will require active participation in 13 days of in-person and virtual trainings as well as required meetings with coaches and team members; or the equivalent of a 20% commitment of work hours to create a meaningful experience. Participation in all aspects of the course is required to receive a certificate of completion. Applicants who are unable to devote their time and energy to the training are encouraged to consider other training dates or options.

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