Last updated on September 23rd, 2017
Steve is currently serving as Interim President Fairmont State University in Fairmont, West Virginia, effective July 1, 2017 through December 2018. Fairmont is his ninth university and fourth university presidency. He is also CEO of Great Blue Heron, LLC, which he launched in January, 2017. GBH serves and improves business, industry, organizations, and other enterprises via targeted consulting, speaking, and writing.
Steve’s first book is Nature Based Leadership: Lessons for Living, Learning, Serving, and Leading (LifeRich Publishing, December 2016).
Nature Based Leadership (NBL) is an approach (a framework) for informing and inspiring life and vocation. Here is the rather formal definition of NBL that appears in the book’s Preface:
Nature based leadership (NBL) defines and elaborates an approach to leadership steeped in the ways of nature. NBL borrows lessons from the ageless evolution of individual species and communities. Far more species have failed than survived over the vast sweep of time. Individual species seek to reproduce, to carry the line forward, just as enterprises (i.e. a business or NGO) seek sustainability. Species employ adaptability, resilience, competition, specificity (such as niche exploitation), efficiency, reciprocity, and fecundity among many other strategies. Species often depend upon complex inter-relationships within the community (ecosystem) they occupy and, in part, compose. Each species has a plan, hard-wired in DNA. NBL identifies successful strategies and relationships, and extracts those that translate to enterprise applications that leaders can apply. NBL also leans heavily on nature’s beauty, awe, wonder, and inspiration. NBL embraces tenets that can sustain the individual enterprise and assure Earth stewardship and human well-being. NBL both implores and enables us to care for our common home and our fellow travelers.
Importantly, although a 30-plus year “academic” and four-time university CEO, I refuse to write in academese (admittedly, the excerpted definition above comes close). I view myself, instead, as a practicing forester who just happens to be a university leader. That forester views life and vocation through a lens sharpened by my many years in the study and practice of applied ecology. As I progressed (if we accept that climbing the career ladder is, indeed, progress) through my career, I increasingly employed my applied ecology filter to all that I did as scientist, scholar, manager, and, ultimately, to leading. No matter the problem, dilemma, or opportunity, I saw lessons from nature applicable to the situation.
As NBL began to emerge and gel intellectually for me, I came to realize that the term “leadership” sliced too narrowly. That is, unless I translated “leading” as in “leading a life.” Hence, I broadened the theme of the book and now my own thinking to the message conveyed by the subtitle: Lessons for living, learning, serving, and leading.
The Story is one I had not consciously explored in so many words. In no small way, my 13 Nature Based Leadership essays tell the tale, revealing what led this shy, introverted nature enthusiast to adopt a relatively untested construct, and dare introduce it to others. I grew bolder and more convinced of its vitality and merit with the enthusiastic embrace evidenced by my fellow NBLI (NBL Institute at Antioch University New England (AUNE)) founders. My guest essayists likewise buoyed my conviction that NBL is a theme and approach whose time is now.
I never set out to be a scientist, scholar, leader, writer. I wanted to do forestry, spend time in the woods, practice my trade, and generally nourish my introversion. Whoa… time, serendipity, good mentors, and a series of awakenings altered my imagined course. As Robert Frost so aptly penned, way led on to way, and that has made all the difference. From one of my essays in Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading, my second book, scheduled for release late July:
Judy has been asking me for years, “Why don’t you write more… you’re good at it? You have done so much across the forest products industry and higher education. Why not tie it all together and do consulting?” Truth be told, I have been afraid of failure. I have pondered whether I am worthy of striking out more or less on my own. I have taken extended refuge in my Zone of Comfort. Multiple rejection letters (for permanent university CEO posts) have made it clear that I have out-grown, out-lived once again finding refuge in that Zone of Comfort. Yet still I am bucking my own silent rebellion. What if nobody reads my writing? What if I hang the consulting shingle and my phone never rings? What if they laugh at my new garb? My disguise? What if they see me simply as the old retired guy, the one who has out-lived his professional merit and worth?
However, my entire professional career, Judy reminds me, I have always harbored self-doubt. Supervisors at Union Camp placed me in positions where the reach exceeded my grasp – they did it every time I attained some level of comfort in the current position. Their constant pushing and pulling ushered me through seven positions in three states across those 12 years. The same held true along my academic career track. Trusted friends and advisors encouraged me to apply for positions beyond my grasp. I suppose it’s natural now to feel self-doubt once again.
Keep your face always toward the sunshine — and shadows will fall behind you. – Walt Whitman
Judy and I have decided to face the sunshine; to once more push through my self-doubt. I’ve worked full time since May 1973. Even if nobody buys my book and no one hires me to consult, we won’t find ourselves destitute. So, I must now enter the Zone of Courage, and we have decided to relish the thought. I’ve learned long ago that we do in fact choose such things. Relish, like so many such forces and attributes, is voluntary. Relish is an attitude. Great Blue Heron is accelerating into the Zone. My first book, “Nature Based Leadership,” released December 2016. Nature-inspired learning and leading is my new realm; it defines and epitomizes my sweet spot. I find writing pleasurable. At the moment, I view it as an end, not necessarily a financial means. Writing forces (and enables) deep thinking.
During my early career years, I would have been reluctant (perhaps loathe) to speak of such things as leading, acting, and rationalizing on the basis of factors and elements other than logic, intellect, and professional training. Employ heart, soul, body, and spirit in decision-making? No way, I would have scoffed at the notion. With age, wisdom, and experience, I have moved beyond the purely objective, head-derived solution scenario. It is emotion, feeling, and subjective judgment, backed and supported by knowledge and intellect, that guides and directs me almost intuitively through alternatives-analysis, relative assessment, and preferred course embrace. I am not sure that I can distinguish for you clearly among the five portals. Yeah, I know intellect/mind, I think. Body may also stand distinctly alone. Call it preservation of self – what is best physically for me, or for others. But step into heart, soul, and spirit… they are intertwined and perhaps metaphorical. Heart may be love for others. Spirit is the metaphysical and of something larger, more grand and higher than we. Soul is something deeper, again, I think.
Human nature embodies all those facets… those things that I believe distinguish us from other living creatures, and from all things inanimate. Yet these attributes are of our human nature, and therefore, of nature. I do know that the salamanders and fungi, nor the bacteria and whales will not save us (humanity) from exacting terminal damage to the Earth system that sustains us. From our insatiable appetite for material consumption. From out-growing the Earth’s capacity to sustain us. I am convinced that our intellect alone will not save us from ourselves. We must employ mind, as well as heart, soul, body, and spirit.
Engineering, the humanities, mathematics, foreign languages, medicine, or any other art/science/discipline fans the flames to the degree that does my passion for nature and for things natural. Just this Father’s Day, visiting our son and his family 20 miles north of Pittsburgh, we had erected a canopy in the driveway over the grill. Frontal showers to the west in Ohio appeared on schedule to arrive just in time for grilling. As Matt readied the charcoal (stacked it as only the great grill-master can do), four-year-old Nathan and I ventured out back to the wood’s edge. We watched birds, spotted a rabbit venturing into the gathering gloom as the western sky darkened, and listened for the first distant rumbles of thunder. We were alone in the world – he delighting in climbing a rope swing, alerting me to interesting sounds and sights, and occasionally chasing the rabbit back into brush cover. Me watching the clouds thicken and swirl, hearing and feeling the growing breeze. Soon we both heard thunder. The radar depicted deep reds along the squall line now within a dozen miles.
As the first fat drops began falling, Nathan and I headed to the shelter of the grilling canopy. I believe Nathan will remember our 30-minute venture for a long time, as will I. After the storm and dinner, he and I walked to the nearby stream, seeing its normally placid flow toss and tumble from the inch or so of rain the squall delivered. Nature makes memories for me, indelible and joyful. Like Nathan, I learned to appreciate the magic, wonder, awe, beauty, and power of nature from my Dad and his father.
Antioch New England has evidenced a long-term focus on environmental studies and Earth stewardship, and demonstrated a commitment to enabling graduates (Master’s and doctoral-level) to engage and act on behalf of today and future generations. Those thrusts, combined with degree elements championing leadership development and highlighting environmental education, made AUNE a natural (pun intended) home for Nature Based Leadership. Add in a president (me) with a unique background and deep experience in forestry, applied ecology, and natural resources sustainability. The stars had perfectly aligned. Faculty across all programs embraced my ideas and many supported the dream to create and house the Institute. I also brought my national network of similarly-minded colleagues, scientists, and practitioners to the visioning table.
I remain convinced that we birthed NBLI at the right academic home. Admittedly, my departure took some of the steam out of the ready-to-launch Institute. Will it flourish and meet what had been my high expectations, at the pace I sought? Can it attract the resources and funding I felt certain we could bring to fuel the bold idea? A president can bring credentials, a senior-level bully pulpit, and the strength of a career-long network to the task. My sense from afar (I’ve been gone one full year) is that NBLI may remain in a holding pattern, awaiting the kind of institutional support it may not get. Nevertheless, I will continue to write, preach, and champion the gospel of NBL. I stand prepared to assist NBLI from afar.
My entire career progression has relied upon fortuity and serendipity. My extended time with Union Camp Corporation’s Corporate Environmental Affairs and within Woodlands Technical conducting tree nutrition and forest fertilization research kept me very much engaged with multiple forest industry research cooperatives at VA Tech, NC State, University of Georgia, Auburn, University of Florida, and Mississippi State. I worked closely with faculty and their graduate students. I began to catch the bug for at least opening the door to a higher education future, which would require the PhD. My SUNY EFS mentor, Dr. Jack Berglund, stayed in regular contact since my BS, hinting at and persuading me to come back for my doctoral degree. If I were ever to pursue the degree, the time had come – mid-30s, two young kids, and still time for a second career track beyond the PhD. Jack made an offer I could not refuse: I give it everything he knew I could; he would push, pull, counsel, and badger me to a doctoral degree in three years. Judy (wife of now 45 years) and I agreed to accept the challenge. WE did it! Three years to the day! Jack, who we knew was terminally ill when I accepted his offer, died two years into my program, yet he had arranged prior to his passing, to keep his end of the bargain. See “Jack Berglund’s Belief in Me” from Nature Based Leadership for a full account.
I have pedaled thousands of bicycle miles as an adult, having learned the basics as a child. From a youngster to today, I have known that when I lean too far (shift the center of gravity beyond an invisible, yet knowable, threshold) to one side or the other, the bike and I will topple. Similarly, through a lifetime of trial and error, I know many examples of if I do ‘x,’ then ‘y’ will occur. With as much certainty, I have come to know that “All lessons for living, learning, serving, and leading are written indelibly in or powerfully inspired by nature.” I have watched Nature and human nature for decades, gaining evidence and confidence in the truth of that statement.
The short version, also presented in-full as an essay in Nature Based Leadership, is that as an adolescent, seeking some alternative action one summer afternoon when the fish weren’t biting, I threw a rock at a way-small target standing in a stagnant, algae-coated slough near the limit of my throwing distance. Rather than splashing somewhere in the vicinity of the little green heron, the rock flew true, instantly killing the magnificent natural treasure. Stunned and mortified, and, I now know, emotionally shamed for life, the deed awakened within me a chord of recognition for my place in the world and of my obligation to never again nonchalantly and ignorantly toss another such stone, literally or metaphorically. Nature-inspired learning and leading? You better believe it!
The great blue heron, the name I gave to my consulting/writing/speaking firm, is my long-deceased Dad’s totem/talisman/animal spirit. The short version of its origin, again told in-full in the book, is that Dad immersed me fully in nature. He (and I) loved seeing these incredible shoreline predators. We thrilled when we encountered one as we fished or hiked. The morning of Dad’s memorial service, a bitterly cold February day, I ran a ten-mile circuit, leaving the house at dawn. Running a favorite route along Evitt’s Creek, I saw movement in some still unfrozen rapids below me. Steam-rose, enshrouding the great blue heron standing in the water, eyes locked with mine. Perhaps after a full minute, he spread his wings heading neither down- or up-stream, but rising in slow spirals. He disappeared into the disc of the sun as it broke the ridge to my east. That is the last I saw of my feathered friend.
Dad had said farewell, signaling that all was well with him, and foretelling that he would revisit time and again – and he has.
I admit that the second book, Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading, is yet another collection of essays (15 of them) that further memorialize and substantiate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by nature. I believe it is generally better written, and that I have consciously added greater substance and elaboration of the stories and their lessons. The first book touches the surface; the second dives more deeply. I have drafted a similar set of essays, intended for a third book in the series, but I am leaning away… toward exploring a different tack, not yet decided.
What a perfect way for me to begin my post-secondary journey at a nearby community college. Very inexpensive to stay at home. Community college tuition and fees nominal. Able to secure employment to pay directly and put some money aside for the final two years of schooling. Mom and Dad, although so kind to allow me to live at home, did not have the resources to contribute to tuition and fees.
I was fortunate that the local college offered my major. However, I would advise students today, those who cannot afford to attend a bachelor’s institution at the outset to enroll at a school (community college or otherwise) that they can afford. Live as inexpensively as possible (at home or not); work and save some money; take it seriously; set goals and establish a timetable; begin growing up. Find a mentor faculty member at the college. Find somebody who believes in you – prove to that person that his/her belief is justified. Perform in a manner that convinces YOU that you are capable. Rise to your aspiration. Work HARD; capability comes through effort and commitment. Confidence grows from effort and performance.
I came to SUNY ESF better prepared for junior and senior years than most of those who enrolled there as freshman. My grade point average actually improved from my community college GPA.
Another bit of advice: visit a military service recruiter, even as you explore colleges through admissions personnel. I’ve seen far too many high school graduates enter college and waste their time and their parent’s money (and their own.) Some folks just aren’t matured enough to handle college at age 18. I suggest reaching maturity at somebody else’s expense.
Okay, I’ll stop there.