College's signature program trains future leaders
February 15, 2015
The students in the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Leadership Institute comprise a select group. Twelve students are selected each year to participate in this two-semester course — the nation’s only intensive undergraduate program aimed at honing the leadership skills of future natural resources professionals.
“This field requires people with strong leadership skills because of the way our Earth and its resources are changing,” said Sierra Steffen, a member of the 2013-14 cohort. “Learning how to interact effectively with people is integral if we want to make a difference. This course has given me the confidence to take on leadership roles.”
Students explore aspects of natural resources leadership such as leadership theories, public service, profit motives, teamwork, change management, conflict resolution, and success in the political arena. They assess their own personality types and learn how personality type affects interpersonal communication and leadership styles. They then practice their leadership and team skills through service-learning projects.
“Any personality type can be a leader; we make that clear,” said Institute Director Steve McMullin, who helped establish the program in 2009 and has been developing the leadership skills of natural resource professionals for more than 20 years. “But their strengths and styles may differ. Having confidence in your own leadership style is important.”
“I learned leadership doesn’t come in one particular style, but in a diverse array of equally successful personalities,” said current cohort member Sterling Pino-DeGale. “The Myers-Briggs assessment we take in class exemplifies this and has been instrumental in my growth as an effective leader.”
“The Myers-Briggs has raised my self-awareness and has given me a scope for introspection,” said fellow cohort member Ilia Donner.
Over winter break, the students and faculty take a weeklong trip to Charlottesville, Richmond, and Washington, D.C., to visit with state and national leaders and policymakers. Accompanied by McMullin, Associate Director Brian Bond, and Dean Paul Winistorfer, the students meet staff members for elected officials, state and federal agency heads, nongovernmental organization directors, and private-sector principals to hear firsthand about the issues and challenges leaders face.
This year’s trip included meetings with staffers for U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, and representatives from the Virginia Department of Forestry, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and a number of other state and federal agencies.
“The students prepared well and asked good questions,” McMullin said. “They were impressed that these powerful, important people were eager to spend time with students and that they confirmed what we’re teaching. Moreover, the leaders we met were extremely impressed with the students and our Leadership Institute program.”
Cohort alumna Katy Battle, now a graduate student at North Carolina State, noted that effective communication, relationship building, and networking were emphasized repeatedly. “I also realized that the best leaders not only align their colleagues toward a common goal but selflessly find ways for these people to shine,” she said.
Paul Decker noticed major differences in the way agencies balanced public opinion with hard science. “Some organizations try very hard to do things on the side of science for the best of the environment, while others feel public support is more important than following a hard-science management plan to the letter,” he said. Now a graduate student at the University of Florida, Decker recently became the first Leadership Institute alumnus to support the program financially.
The trip helps students see the organizational leaders as “real people” and reassures them that these positions aren’t totally out of reach. “Speaking with them showed me that they all started somewhere,” said Steffen.
“I use what I learned in the Leadership Institute every day,” said alumnus Turner Crawford, now a timber management consultant for South Rivers Forestry Consultants. “It has changed how I communicate, how I handle situations, and has given me a greater ability to understand what people want and need. I find myself taking leadership roles more often.”
“We could not offer this unique co-curricular experience for our students without financial support from our Leadership Institute donors,” said Dean Paul Winistorfer, who developed the initial concept for the program. “They are making an investment in the future through the lives and future career paths — and leadership potential — of our students. I feel very confident that we have future leaders in our midst.”