“Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”
~ Unknown Buddhist Monk
Our suffering is killing us, and it’s destroying what sustains life on earth.
We suffer, in part, because we crave or desire material objects – a newer iPhone, a nicer car, a bigger house – as well as emotional safety, such as the illusion of stable relationships and certainty about life’s path.
No amount of material possessions can ever satisfy our longing because happiness and peace in life cannot be obtained from external belongings. Nor can we ever count on our relationships with other people, with our work, or even with our family for emotional grounding because these things are constantly in flux: friends move away, careers change with time, children grow up and leave home and loved-ones die. Happiness and peace are not found outside of the self; only within.
Across much of western society, and around the world, we have either forgotten this simple truth or have never learned it in the first place. We continue to try and ease our suffering through the accumulation of wealth and by denying the most basic fundamental truths of human existence: everything changes; everybody grows old, gets sick and dies; and everything is part of everything else.
Our difficulty grasping the interconnectedness of everything, not only on earth, but across all of time and space, leads us to feel a profound loneliness and a sense of isolation from one another. In turn, we try to ease this pain by filling our lives with material possessions, rather than practices that help us erase the barrier between ourselves and the rest of existence.
As humanity struggles to address the most pressing global issues of our time – a changing climate that will irrevocably alter life on earth, crushing poverty and inequality, and the loss of biodiversity that will cripple global ecosystems of which we are inextricably a part – we need to address not just the outcome of these challenges, but their root cause: our suffering’s impact on the world that sustains us, and on one another.
For almost twenty-five years I’ve been an environmental and social activist. I’ve taken a straight-forward approach to advocating for what I believe in: a patch of wilderness that I cherish is threatened, so I work with my community, scientists, and with other activists to fight oil and gas development, logging, mining or road building. An important animal like the grizzly bear or the bull trout is threatened with extinction so I rally the public to fight for stronger laws and regulations to protect it. I’ve had some success, but I’ve also watched so many things that I cherish slip away.
My advocacy was often fueled by anger, and its underlying cause fear, because of what we were losing. Around ten years ago that started to change; I realized that letting my love for other people, for wild places, and for the dignity of humanity fuel my work to make change was far more effective – and personally sustainable – than being driven by my fear. In 2006 I wrote Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership to outline what I thought was a better path for people who want to make the world a better place to follow.
Since then I’ve been trying to use the three pillars of the Tao – restraint, compassion and love – in my everybody life, first as a consultant to non-profits and business, and once again as a leader in North America’s conservation movement.
In doing so I’ve stumbled upon a difficult reality: all of our victories to protect the fabric of life on this planet, all of our efforts to provide dignity, food and shelter for people who are in need of it, are temporary. Everything we do to protect the backbone of the globe’s biodiversity only lasts until our own insatiable appetite for whatever riches lie buried beneath that place as goal, oil and gas, or growing on it as merchantable timber, are needed by an ever more desperate human population.
Nothing is safe and no place is so sacred that we won’t one day sacrifice it if we grew desperate enough. There is no law that can’t be rescinded; there is no United Nations status that is so prestigious that it won’t be ignored if humankind continues on its current trajectory. Witness the status of South Africa’s black rhinoceros: hunted to near extinction for the aphrodisiac believed to be continued in its horn. Laws and even an armed militia aren’t enough to keep poachers from shooting these animals and leaving them to rot, and for what? So that someone somewhere can satisfy their sexual desire.
Witness also the full-out assault on Canada’s laws to protect our environment; laws that once made us the envy of the world, and now leave us the laughing stock. In just a few short years Canada’s Conservative government under Prime Minster Stephen Harper have dismantled the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waterways Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act, once the strongest piece of legislation in Canada for safeguarding the Environment. The Species at Risk Act, which I helped advocate for from 1997 through late 2002, is next on the chopping block. Why? To make it easier for petrochemical companies to drill for oil and ship it to refineries around the world.
Until we address the underlying cause of the rampant destruction of the natural world, until we address the extraordinary disparity between rich and poor around the globe, every effort to protect life on earth will be fleeting. We need another approach; we need something in addition to our political and community advocacy in order to address what Wade Davis calls the “fire burring over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom.”
Through the practice of meditation, which I began in earnest during a period of personal upheaval in 2006, I began to understand the nature of my own suffering, and that of every other human being. Suffering is at once deeply personal and universal. We all suffer; it is the nature of humanity to feel the pain that comes from life, and our perceptions of it.
Twenty-five hundred years ago an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama felt that pain too. Raised in opulent luxury and sheltered from the world of sickness, disease and death, the young prince came face-to-face with these realities and fled his life of privilege and began to follow a spiritual path. After six years of wandering, meditation, and self-deprivation, the man who would become the first Buddha was no closer to solving for himself what is a universal paradox: life ends, everything we love is taken from us, and we and everybody we care for will one day die. Nothing we can do will stop that; we have to make peace with it.
Siddhartha sat down under the Bodhi tree and meditated on this quandary. He recalled that in his youth he had found the greatest peace of his life enjoying a profound interconnectedness with nature, and with all life on earth, and in that moment realized what Buddhists now call the two Great Truths: that everything is temporary and everything is interconnected with everything else.
In that moment he ceased to be Siddhartha the prince and he became a Buddha; one who has conquered suffering; an enlightened being.
All the riches in the world could not fulfill the young prince’s soul; he had to confront the most basic facts of human existence, and make peace with them, before he could be happy. From that moment on he dedicated the rest of his life – another forty-five years – teaching a simple message: that we are all the Buddha. Every human being who has ever lived and ever will are Buddha, and all that is needed is a profound understanding – not just intellectually, but an actual emotional and spiritual acceptance – of the basic conditions of life.
Let me be clear about this: I have not surmounted the obstacles to suffering. I have not achieved enlightenment; not even of the 25-watt kind. Enlightenment isn’t even my goal; peace of heart and mind is my simple ambition. But the world is careening toward disaster and I am no longer convinced that activism alone will abate the destruction, so I find myself writing about an end to suffering out of a moral imperative to preserve what, and who, I love.
In concert with activism of all kinds, I believe that a spiritual and practical application of the Buddha’s teaching could ease the pell-mell ruin of the earth’s wonders. Once we have experienced, first hand, the simple truths of the Buddha’s teaching, and put into place some basic tenants to guide our behaviour, we no longer feel the need to satiate our appetite for material objects to fill the hole in our hearts. It does not mean that we must live the life of an aesthete, shunning any material possession or pleasure. It means that we control our desire, rather than the other way around.
The Buddha taught that there are Four Noble Truths that we must confront before we can do so.
The first is the truth of suffering. We all suffer. Some have misinterpreted this to mean that all life is suffering, but that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught us that life entails suffering.
Second he taught that there is a cause to this suffering. Our suffering is caused by our lack of understanding of the two Great Truths: that everything changes and everything is connected. We become attached to things, to people, to loved ones, to objects of desire, and that attachment, our desire for these things, causes us to suffer when we can’t have them, or when they change. We suffer also because we perceive ourselves as separate from one another and the fabric of life on earth and across the universe.
Third, the Buddha taught that there is an end to suffering. If we can experience the interconnectedness of life and make peace with the nature of change, we can conquer our suffering.
Finally the Buddha taught that there is a path that we can follow to peace, joy, liberation from suffering and ultimately nirvana: the magic of living fully in the present moment in a state of enlightenment. That path is the Noble Eightfold Path, and it remains a guide that we in the 21st century can use to achieve peace while addressing the underlying cause of the suffering we inflict on the world.
The Noble Eightfold Path is not a mystical passageway that leads to a conversion or to a religious belief: it is a set of guidelines for living a life free of suffering. The Eightfold Path is right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness and right concentration. Right in this case means “in the right way” or “straight” or “upright.”
For example, right view means developing a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths about the nature of suffering and how to end it. Right view means developing personal insight into these truths and believing in our hearts that there is an end the pain caused by our misperceptions of life and having faith in ourselves that we can overcome this pain because many others have already.
When we have come to grips with the nature of suffering through right view, we then automatically begin to think more clearly about our lives and the choices we have to make, and so on. In this way we see that each of the Noble Eightfold Path’s steps are at once a logical progression from one to another and all interconnected.
My purpose in writing this book is simple: I want to help ease human suffering so that we in turn can ease the suffering we cause the world and one another.
The purpose of Buddhism is not to make more Buddhists, nor is that my purpose. While I identify myself as a Buddhist – one who has accepted the basic truth about human suffering and who is trying to ease it – I also am a father, a husband, an activist, a writer, a community member and a friend. The teachings of the Buddha are not aimed at converting people to a certain religion. People from any faith can learn about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path – along with many other teachings – and adopt them as part of their own personal trajectory towards happiness and peace. While there are certainly schools of Buddhism that verge on the worship of the man who was Gautama Buddha that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught that we are all Buddha, and that each and every one of us can wake up to the peace that comes with liberation from suffering.
Nor is my purpose in writing this book is not to replace what I think of as traditional activism with a spiritual practice. Buddhism has existed on earth for more than two-thousand, five hundred years; the process of seeking and finding nirvana – everyday freedom from suffering – is a slow process. We will need to use all of our skills and tools to save what we love about the earth, its cultures and its people. We must continue with political pressure, with protests and marches, with letter writing and economic pressure; but to win in the long term, we must remove the desire that drives the hunger for more; more things, and the precious resources that must be consumed to make ever more material objects.
My purpose is this: if we want our success in preserving life on earth and human dignity to be lasting then we must quench the fire that burns in the heart of humanity that must constantly be fed by more and more material demands. Until we do nothing will be sacred. Once we begin to make peace with our selves and the basic truth of human existence everything will be sacred.
This is the first piece of writing in a series of essays I am completing for a book. What do you think? I want your feedback to improve the ideas, and to collect first-hand examples. Please chime in.
 Wade Davis, The Clouded Leopard. pp 231. 1998, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd.
 From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching; Thich Nat Hanh, page 11. Broadway Press, 1998.
This post is part of an ongoing series exploring topics on leadership and activism from Carry Tiger to Mountain, published in 2006 by Arsenal Pulp Press.
“Do not force action,
Instead allow action to arise on its own
And follow its course.”
From the stillness of the night, the day begins. All action rises from non-action. This is one of the hardest concepts to grasp in the Tao te Ching: that of “no action;” or “allowing action to arise of its own accord.”
As activists we act. It’s what we have been breed to do. We see something in the world that is wrong and we act to fix it. Forever busy, we are constantly in motion, pressing our case to save people from famine, to solve the problem of homeless or protect some wild place that we love.
But one of the fundamental laws of the universe is that action arises from stillness. Stillness is the source of action.
Wait for the right moment to act
All of our work has a common source
All of our effort returns to that point
If you know this in your heart
You will be patient
Tolerant of others
Respectful of their opinions
Amused by the uproar
Able to respond with dignity.
There is a great deal to explore behind the concept of no action or allowing the right action to arise of its own accord. When writing Carry Tiger to Mountain between 2003 and 2006, the chapter on this concept — titled Retreat to Ride Tiger after the paradoxal movement in Tai Chi — was one of the hardest. But next to the notion of the Three Treasures – restraint, compassion and love – the notion of no action forms the fundamental foundation of understanding the Tao te Ching and how we can use it in our efforts to make the world a better place.
The idea of acting without action is about learning how to use the energy of the universe – the Tao – to accomplish what we want to achieve, whether we want to write a great novel, stop a clear cut or start a business that helps make the world a better place.
As activists we sometimes refer to our work as a struggle or a fight, but that’s because so often we ignore the direction of the energy of the universe and instead resist it. The metaphor I use in Carry Tiger to Mountain is this: if you were trying to stop a boulder that was rolling down a hill from crushing something in its path, would you step in front of it and act against it? Or would you run along beside of it and try to redirect its energy.
Much of what we are trying to change in this world is like that boulder: a tremendous force rolling downhill towards something we love. And we throw ourselves in front of it, hoping to stop it. Sometimes we do. But at great cost. And often we don’t. The Tao te Ching counsels us to learn about the nature of the universes’ energy and use as little force as possible to create the change we hope to. Sometimes that means taking no action what-so-ever. Knowing when to act, and when to step back, is one of the most important lessons that the Tao te Ching can teach us.
To learn more about how to apply the lessons of the Tao te Ching to your efforts as a writer, activist, leader, or socially conscious business person, click here. Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership is available from Arsenal Pulp Press.
To receive updates on this and other topics follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault. Click here to read past posts about the Tao of activism and leadership.
In Carry Tiger to Mountain I wrote this:
No matter what propels us to become activists in the first place, it is love that sustains and nurtures us over the long term. Hatred burns too hot to last, and fear has an insidious way of burrowing into our hearts and souls and stealing from us our ability to act out of courage. Only our love for the places we are trying to protect, our love from one another, can provide the fuel to sustain a lifetime of effective activism.
Jonathan Star translates the third treasure of The Tao te Ching as love. According to Star, many Ancient Chinese characters have multiple meanings. In his Definitive Edition of the Tao te Ching he translates the character for “tz’u” found in verse sixty seven as being “loving/affectionate/compassionate/merciful.”
These are difficult times to allow love to guide our work as activists. In Canada the environmental movement is under assault from our own government. It has been this way in the United States for many years. So much of what we love is disappearing. But fear, which is the root of anger, cannot save us. Only love can.
“To meet hatred and force with love and yielding
This is the way of the Tao
To read more about Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership please click here.
I’m posting regular(ish) thoughts from this book on Twitter at #carrytiger. You can follow me @stephenlegault.
Compassion is the “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relive it.” Lao Tzu, the hero of Carry Tiger to Mountain: the Tao of Activism and Leadership, says that the sage activist is “saturated with compassion.”
It is the second treasure of the Tao te Ching’s three treasures: restraint, compassion and love.
It is easy for us to feel compassion with those we are closest too: our partners, family, children, friends, and close colleagues.
And while they need and deserve it, if we wish to make the world a better place, not just in the short term, but for the long journey of humanity, then we must practice compassion with those who oppose us. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama says that we must “remove negative feelings towards our enemies.”
I believe that we must stop thinking about people as our enemies. Simply put, we oppose other people’s actions. We oppose what they do, and sometimes, their world view. But they are not our enemy. We do not wish them harm; we want to stop what they are doing that is harming the world and its creatures.
Always remember that your opponent is human
Treat her with love and compassion
Those we oppose are human, and humanity is all interconnected. Even those who we most vehemently oppose are capable of loving their children. Our most ardent opponents have fears that drive them to make wrong-headed decisions that harm the earth and make other people’s lives very difficult. Treating them with compassion will unlock the possibility for long term solutions to the problems that vex our society and our planet.
What do we do when compassion doesn’t feel like it’s enough? How do we respond when it feels as if the world is on a collision course with doomsday and people are suffering and dying?
We meet anger and fear with love. Next week, the third treasure: L.O.V.E.
There is a whole chapter on the Three Treasures: restraint, compassion and love in Carry Tiger to Mountain, The Tao of Activism and Leadership. You can read more about the book here.
The book was published by Arsenal Pulp Press and is available by ordering it directly from the Press, or by asking for it in your local bookstore or library. If all else fails, you can always buy it online.
Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault as I post stanzas from the Tao te Ching all week related to compassion.
Recently Canadian federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver branded those who oppose the development of the Northern Gateway Project as radicals who were ideologically bent on stopping development of energy projects in Canada. I’m one of them.
It’s been a while since anybody called me a name while in a debate over an environmental issue; longer still since that person was a Minister of the Crown. I think the last one was Ralph Klein or Ty Lund.
But truth be told, the Honourable Minister was right. I am a radical.
I want to get to the root of this and other challenges that face Canada, and the world.
And that’s what a radical is: someone or something that “goes to the root or origin.” Mr. Oliver was likely thinking about a couple of the word’s other meanings when he made his pronouncement: “going to the extreme, especially as regards to change from accepted or traditional forms” or “favouring drastic political, economic, or social reforms.”
I’m okay with being labelled with both of those definitions too.
The fact of the matter is simple: radical change is needed in Canada, and around the world, to create a society that doesn’t destroy its life support system while going about its day to day business. That doesn’t mean we have to conjure an unsavoury images of hooded trouble-makers burning cars in the street. The most radical people I know are everyday, average citizens who work hard, pay their taxes, love their children and are trying to make a difference not only with their actions, but also with their hearts.
We don’t just need to stop a pipeline from being built across some of the most amazing landscapes in North America to belch bitumen into tankers that could foul some of the most pristine waters in the world; we need to address the underlying reason why humanity feels the need for the products that this filthy oil produces.
If that makes me a radical, fine. If that makes the vast majority of First Nations in BC, along with the diverse coalition of activists and community members who oppose the Northern Gateway project radicals, so be it. My fellow radicals and I are in good company. Ghandi was a radical for wanting to peacefully harmonize post-English India; Martin Luther King Junior was a radical for working for civil rights. Jesus Christ was a radical for teaching peace, and that the one true way to know God was through direct communication through prayer; Lord Buddha was a radical for teaching us that there is an end to suffering.
I am a radical because:
- I think that Canada’s natural resource wealth, and in particular our tar sands, shouldn’t be liquidated so that wealthy corporations based in the US, Europe and China, can get even richer;
- I believe that if we’re going to use tar sands oil, it should fuel a transition from a petroleum based economy to one that is sustained by sun, wind, tides and most importantly based on conservation, and
- I believe we need to address what underlies our insatiable thirst for the dirtiest energy on earth. I think we need to address the very root of this problem.
I know: radical.
I believe that the root of this challenge is that humanity is destroying the earth’s precious life support system to fuel a pell-mell consumerism in a vain effort to placate basic human suffering. It’s not the sort of suffering that can be cured with a trip to the doctor; it’s a spiritual hole that exists in every human being that we mistakenly try to fill with things.
Until we address this underlying issue we will continue to fight pipelines, tar sands projects, fracking, clear cutting, strip mining, damn building, and the inevitable degradation of natural ecosystems and creation of green house gasses that result.
Maybe the most radical idea is that every single one of us suffers, feels alone, fears death, is afraid of the unknown, mistakes the basic reality of human existence and has desires that can’t possibly be fulfilled with a bigger house or SUV or a new iPhone 4S. Instead of wondering why, we just keep on gobbling up the earth’s natural capital, hoping to ease our pain, necessitating the building of pipelines to pump more and more filthy oil to more and more hungry, unquenchable markets.
If wanting to put a stop to that makes me a radical, then I wear the moniker with pride.
The real foreign interests in the oilsands, Terry Glavin, The Ottawa Citizen.
Cozy Ties: Astroturf ‘Ethical Oil’ and Conservative Alliance to Promote Tar Sands Expansion, Emma Pullman, the DeSmog Blog
An open reply to Joe Oliver’s Propaganda for the Petro State, Andrew Nikiforuk, the Tyee
For updates follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.
The foundation of the Tao te Ching are the Three Treasures. These have been interpreted in many ways over the last 2,500 years; in Carry Tiger to Mountain, The Tao of Activism and Leadership I interpret them as Restraint, Compassion and Love.
Restraint is sometimes know as “daring not to be first,” in various translations of the Tao te Ching. Ostensibly, it requires us to control our own ego, to step aside while allowing others to step forward. The Tao te Ching says:
Our finest effort will flow like a river
Rocks, boulders, even a dam, in time, will succumb
to the current
We can learn to act with such patience and perseverance
In doing so, be like the Tao
Together, patience and perseverance form a yin-yang equilibrium. Patience is the yin side of the equation – the light, the yielding part – while the yang, or assertive part, is the perseverance. Yin and Yang do not work against one another; they are not opposites: they are two parts of the same whole, working in harmony. Knowing when to step back, and when to step forward and provide a needed injection of energy and enthusiasm is one of the hardest challenges facing leaders, in both business and in non-profits.
Restraint does not come naturally to those of us working to protect what we love, either through non-profit organizations or by running ethically driven businesses. We’re afraid that if we step back, more of what we hold dear will disappear. But sometimes, practicing restraint is what we need to do to advance our efforts. Lao Tzu says:
When you speak, do so clearly
And then remain quiet
Be like nature
A tempest doesn’t last all day
Afternoon heat is followed by a thundershower
One of the themes I’ve explored in Carry Tiger is ego. Ego can be very helpful; it propels us forward, it provides us with “appropriate self worth.” But for an activist working to create a better world, it can be very harmful. Ego can keep us from allowing others to step forward and share the burden of leadership; ego can keep us too long in the spotlight, casting long shadows on others. Practicing restraint allows us to step aside and let others step forward.
One final thought on restraint: the most important time to exercise it is with those we oppose. When we win, do not be boastful; simply “step back and be watchful.” When mired in conflict, retrain from inflammatory accusations. These only harden our opposition, and prevent us from long term progress.
There is much more about this theme throughout Carry Tiger to Mountain. And in the coming weeks and months, I will explore this further through Twitter (@stephenlegault) and through this blog.
Next week: the second of the Three Treasures: compassion.
I’m going to share bits and pieces of my interpretation of the Tao with friends on Twitter using #carrytiger as a hashtag. Please follow me @stephenlegault and retweet when you can.
You can read more about the book here.
Carry Tiger to Mountain was published by Arsenal Pulp Press and is available by ordering it directly from the Press, or by asking for it in your local bookstore or library. If all else fails, you can always buy it online.
Join the conversation: tell me about your experiences exercising restraint, or when in retrospect it might have been a good idea:
In 2006 Arsenal Pulp Press published my first book, Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership. I’d been thinking about this book for almost as long as I’d been an activist – applying the ancient principles of Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching to my own work in the conservation movement – and had started compiling ideas for the book some years before.
The premise of Carry Tiger to Mountain is that we, as people who are trying to make the world a better place, might experience more success if we use the three treasures of Taoism as talismans: restraint, compassion and love. The centrepiece of Carry Tiger is an interpretation of the 81 stanzas of the Tao te Ching specifically for activists and leaders in the social profit, and socially-minded business world.
There are also chapters on strategy, collaboration, conflict, leadership, fundraising and self-care.
I’ve been surprised, and pleased, by the resilience of Carry Tiger to Mountain. People still contact me to tell me how much this book has meant to them, and how it has helped them improve their own lives, and the world around them. Over the next while, I’m going to share bits and pieces of my interpretation of the Tao with friends on Twitter using #carrytiger as a hashtag. Please follow me @stephenlegault and retweet when you can.
It’s important to remember this about the Tao te Ching: its an enigma. Its paradox wrapped up in contradiction. The first thing Lao Tzu wrote was “The Way that can be spoken is not the only way.” I was conscious in penning Carry Tiger to Mountain that everything I said could be wrong. Or then again, it might not be. It’s up to each of us to determine the Way and its Virtue for ourselves.
You can read more about the book here.
The book was published by Arsenal Pulp Press and is available by ordering it directly from the Press, or by asking for it in your local bookstore or library. If all else fails, you can always buy it online.
I’m jumping back into conservation work with both feet after a six year hiatus. This decision was not an easy one, but it’s been made and I’m thrilled to find myself back in a leadership role, helping to protect an extraordinary landscape – the Crown of the Continent – while working to ensure communities and landscapes can adapt to climate change along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.
About eight months ago I was beginning my professional transition from British Columbia back to Alberta and quickly I had to confront some of the challenging situations I had left behind in this province.
Six years ago I resigned as the Executive Director of Wildcanada.net, an organization I had helped found in the late 1990’s, and lead for the better part of seven years. When I helped launch that organization I told our founding Board of Directors that I would do the work for five to seven years, and when I made the decision to leave, I knew that my time was up. With the Board of Directors, and some independent coaching, I planned an eighteen month leadership transition. But the plan fell apart, and the organization fell with it.
One of my greatest professional regrets, so far, is that I wasn’t able to step back into the ED position at Wildcanada.net and hold it together. But I was burnt out. I had just moved to BC with my family and my second son had been born, and I had taken on new commitments with clients and a book. I simply couldn’t step back in, though many times now I’ve questioned that decision.
I’d been doing full time conservation work for twelve years by then, on the front lines of some very difficult campaigns: federal endangered species legislation, a new National Parks Act, the battle to protect Banff and other National Parks from crass exploitation, the highly publicized and successful campaign to protect Alberta’s Kananaskis Country, and the fiery debate over the protection of grizzly bears in Alberta, to name just a few.
I was also burnt out from the singular responsibility for managing Wildcanada.net’s finances. Being somewhat on the Type A side of things, I knew that I had to raise $1,730 every single working day to keep Wildcanada.net’s lights on, databases humming and staff employed. Over time, help arrived by way of an amazing program director for our social profit enterprise, ActionWorks.ca, but it was still a tremendous burden. Because we weren’t a charity – an impossibility due to draconian charitable laws in Canada that say you can’t ask people to lobby their elected officials – raising that $1,700/day became an overwhelming challenge.
So we let Wildcanada.net come to an end, and some felt it was premature. Our network of 35,000 was gifted to another national conservation organization, and we sold ActionWorks.ca to a competitor to pay off our debts. Organizations – like people – have life spans, and when one reaches its end, sometimes we just have to let go. But it didn’t mean that everybody liked the decision.
And we didn’t do it all in a way that made everybody happy. I took responsibility for our mistakes, and still do. We did our best to make amends, but in some cases hard feelings persisted. In some cases those hard feelings existed mostly in my guilt-laden mind; I remember having dinner with a former colleague about three years ago and was flabbergasted to learn that he didn’t harbor any hurt feelings about my leadership, but in fact he himself felt bad for having not been able to do more to keep the organization alive. We forgave one-another. Another such moment came when several of my former colleagues collectively called from a dinner party to say hello and to assure me that they felt no ill will. That call was like cool waters poured on a burn.
Sometimes you can rebuild trust, and sometimes you can’t. I think the final bridge that I can possibly rebuild was mended recently when I had lunch with a friend who was undergoing a similar transition in an organization that he had lead for a decade. He shared his own disappointment with me: Wildcanada.net, he said, held such promise, and his frustration was that we hadn’t been able to capitalize on that hope. We talked it through, and he suggested that before I stepped back into the conservation movement, and Alberta, that I might write down some of what I’d learned over the last six years.
And given that I’m taking such a step tomorrow, no better time than the present.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned:
1) When taking on a leadership role, walk before you can run.
Whether you’re building something from scratch, or taking over a program, department or organization, build a stable foundation on which to grow. Create concrete systems – from human resources to financial planning and accounting – that will endure through changes and challenges in the organization’s development. Couple this with an ambitious, but realistic, effort to create early success that helps define the program or organization’s value.
2) Secure a solid team.
Hire high on the wage scale. Invest time and energy and money to bring good people into the program or organization that you can count on to help with the burden of vision and leadership. Invest in the hiring, training and retention process.
3) Diversify revenue early.
From the earliest possible moment, take steps to diversify the revenue of the program or organization. As an ED, and as a consultant, I’ve seen too many organization’s dependent on just foundation revenue for their survival. Earned income, major and small gifts, corporate donors and planned giving should be considered from the very start of an organization’s fundraising efforts.
4) Mark the hard decisions in a timely way.
Through Carry Tiger to Mountain, I have espoused allowing time to make difficult decisions, but this should be bounded by the need to ground decisions in real world timeframes. One of the biggest mistakes I made while at Wildcanada.net came when I had budgeted to receive a sustaining grant from a foundation which, by complete surprise, didn’t come. I still remember opening the envelope from the Foundation expecting a cheque for $50K US to fall out, and instead read the rejection letter. I should have taken quick steps to mitigate this crippling blow to our finances by laying off the staff position that the money was to be dedicated to. But I didn’t. Instead I tried to fundraise our way out of the hole. That was more than 18 months before Wildcanada.net closed its doors, but we were never again able to make up for that financial challenge. (See # 3 above.)
5) When things start to look crazy, get help.
At the time my ego wouldn’t let me do this. I had some help from Board members and from my professional coach, but I needed real assistance in dealing with things like financial management – keeping the various streams of income and expenses separate – that I failed to reach out for. And when I was planning the leadership transition, I simply didn’t consider all of the contingency measures that might be needed. In the end it was this failed leadership transition that did us in.
6) Lead the transition.
I came at the issue of leadership transition with the exact opposite attitude than I should have. I believed that it was the responsibility of my small, but capable Board of Directors, to lead this transition process. I hoped that in doing so they would feel an ownership of the organization that had been missing so far. This isn’t uncommon for organizations that start the way Wildcanada.net did: a leader comes forward with a good idea and gets the ball rolling and because to formally incorporate you need a Board of Directors, you get some capable people together to help out, with the promise that it won’t be too much work.
What I now understand is that for any leadership transition to be successful, the out-going leader has to play a much larger role than simply mapping out the strategy. He or she has to lead the organization through the transition, leaving enough room for the Board and other leaders to take ownership, but at the end of the day the outgoing ED or CEO must shoulder the challenge of the transition.
That means saving some energy for that process, rather than flaming out and running screaming from the burning building.
There’s more, of course, but sometimes it’s best to just let go. As Michael Franti says, “Remember you have to reach high to be risen; the day you let go is the day you are forgiven.”
Jenn and many others remind me that Wildcanada.net did amazing work. Over the course of our seven year run, we worked on more than sixty five campaigns across Canada. At the time we had the largest online conservation network in the country and were among a handful of leaders in the online activism world. We helped pass the Species at Risk Act and helped stop the grizzly bear hunt in Alberta. We gave hundreds of small organizations struggling across the country a connection to the passion of the conservation movement they would never realize working in isolation from one another.
I’ve been coming to terms with this experience now since leaving Wildcanada.net and Alberta six years ago. Now I’m back in Alberta, and feel blessed everyday to wake up and be living in the most beautiful place on earth. And now I’m set to jump, with both feet, back into the critical effort to protect this magnificent place.
I’m doing so knowing that I will make brand new mistakes along the way, and will work hard to apply what I’ve learned to my new effort. I promise to do my very best. I will do this because the wild creatures and places, and human communities that depend on them, deserve my very best effort to ensure their survival. And because it’s an honour to serve this wild and magnificent place we call home.
Tomorrow morning I’m going to get up and go to work for the first time in a year and a half.
It’s not like I’ve been sitting around doing nothing for the last 18 months, but I haven’t had a job where I go to an office or report to an employer since leaving Royal Roads University at the end of July 2009.
Tomorrow I begin a position as the Initiative Coordinator for the Crown of the Continent Conservation Initiative (CCCI). As I’ve said elsewhere, this is a new position and my main role will be to serve a partnership of conservation groups in Canada and the United States in protecting and restoring a vast swath of the Rocky Mountains, all through the lens of creating a climate change refuge. It’s exciting and a little daunting, and it marks a major change in my life’s direction. Six years ago when I left Wildcanda.net, the organization I had helped found, I doubted I’d ever return to the conservation movement. I had allowed it to take its toll on me. But time has a way of expunging the pain of difficult memories and leaving learning as the residue; the last six years have proven to be rich in such learning.
One thing I’ve learned is that the process of finding ones Dharma – our purpose in life – is a constantly unfolding progression of experiences and experiments. It’s not a destination, something that we can arrive at and settle into, but a constantly evolving series of events that we discover on our journey.
A year and a half ago, when Royal Roads cut my position as Senior Development Officer for Sustainability, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. At the time I mused that the job was coming between me and my dharma, which was to write. I took the termination of the position, due to budget constraints brought on by the economic downturn, as a sign-post pointing me in the direction of my true work. And I seized on it.
In the ensuing 18 months I finished writing The Darkening Archipelago, the second Cole Blackwater mystery, and enjoyed its launch last March. I developed a detailed outline for a three book series called The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries (while sitting on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon; nice work if you can get it) and have found a publisher for the books. I’m half way through penning the first book in the series called The Slickrock Paradox. I wrote, from beginning to end, the first book in a series of historical mysteries called The End of the Line, wrote the outline for half a dozen more, and began detailed research and wrote the outline for the second book, The Third Riel Rebellion. The End of the Line will be released next September. The same publisher, Touchwood, will release the third novel in the Cole Blackwater series, provisionally named The Lucky Strike Manifesto, in the spring of 2012. And I’ve written a (rather sparse) first draft of a stand-alone thriller Thicker Than Blood.
Busy, busy. Hard to argue that I’ve not been capitalizing on what I dubbed The Third Coincidence over the last year and a half. All of this has come while trying to revitalize my consulting firm, Highwater Mark Strategy and Communication, raise two heart-breakingly beautiful boys, be a good husband, and move from BC back to Alberta.
Highwater Mark was how I have earned my living, more or less, for the last six years. But that’s where the strategy broke down. I’m not very good at the business side of consulting. Or maybe I’d lost the gumption needed to sell myself. As a one-person operation, I’ve managed to attract some very exciting clients to work with, and I feel that we’ve done some extraordinary work together, but developing long term, profitable client relationships hasn’t been my forte. At times I’ve been able to attract three, four, even five clients at once, but they’ve rarely been sustaining when it comes to my fiscal bottom line. I’ve enjoyed several good years, where my final balance sheet revealed decent income, but then have fallen victim to weighty income tax bills and bad tax planning. And even during the two or three really good years, it’s been difficult riding the ups and downs of a consultant’s cash flow – some months amazing, others dismal – while trying to raise a family. I have several good friends in the business who have managed to do it; I have not.
The work itself was sometimes blissful – especially when working with clients where we came together to solve complex problems and develop lasting solutions – but sometimes it was just plain hard to see how I would pay the rent the following month.
As I’ve noted in previous essay’s on this subject, I don’t believe in coincidence. What to some seems like “something that happens by chance in a surprising or remarkable way” to me are signals for the direction I am supposed to take my life in. As the time for my families move back to Alberta neared, I was wondering how, exactly, I would relocate my struggling consulting practice to a province where I’d only had two of my more than thirty clients over the last six years? I had developed a strategy to market my services to Alberta’s non-profits and green businesses, but felt a sense of despondency at having to start from scratch building a professional network again.
And then something extraordinary happened. Jenn sent me a job posting for the Initiative Coordinator position for the CCCI. Not only was I intimately familiar with this work, but I could do the job from Canmore, where I was moving to. And I was excited by it; I felt my passion for wilderness stir once more.
There are no coincidences. I applied, had a couple of tough but rewarding interviews, and several months later was offered the job. I start tomorrow.
One of the questions I was asked during the interview was how I would balance my writing with this full-time, and what promises to be demanding, position? Good question. The difficult answer is that writing will have to take a back-seat to my work for the CCCI for the time being. My aspiration is to continue to get up early and get two hours of writing in each morning before the rest of the day begins. Doing that, I should be able to keep up the pace – a book every six months or so — that my publisher and I have agreed to. If not, we may have to slow things down. The sad truth is that while I’ve been exceptionally productive over the last eighteen months in developing stories and writing books, it will be some time before the fruits of those labors materialize in my bank account.
Everything happens for a reason, and this change in course is no different. I am deeply, passionately committed to conservation, and have been eager to get back involved with the effort to protect the mountain landscapes I love. For the last six years I’ve been learning skills and strategies for achieving success from outside the conservation movement that I can now apply to my work in the Crown of the Continent. A little while ago I wrote Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership, and its high-time I applied what I was espousing in that book to see if it holds up under pressure.
My history with Wildcanada.net is something that I’ve had to come-to-terms with over the last six years. I was 28 years old when I helped found this national endeavor, and had never balanced a cheque book when I began managing its four-hundred thousand dollar a year budget. We did some extraordinary work, and had real on-the-ground conservation victories, but I was in way over my head. I have dedicated a lot of time and energy over the last six years to coming to terms with Wildcanada.net’s successes and failures, and my role in them. I was asked to discuss them when interviewing for the CCCI position. I expect some written disclosure is forthcoming, but that’s for another time.
What I’ve concluded from all of this is that amazing opportunities like this work with CCCI don’t happen very often in little towns like Canmore, Alberta; it’s no coincidence I moved back here just weeks before being offered the job, for this too is part of my dharma. This is how our purpose reveals itself; how our dharma unfolds.
After nearly six years, and serving more than thirty-five clients across Canada, Highwater Mark Strategy and Communications is evolving. I have accepted an exciting new position with an international conservation effort called the Crown of the Continent Conservation Initiative (CCCI) where I will be the Initiative Coordinator. I’ll officially be employed, full time, by the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, an organization I played a leadership role with as a board member from 1997 through 2004. I’ll work from Canmore, Alberta, where my family and I are settling in nicely after our December move.
My work with CCCI starts on Monday, the 14th, fittingly Valentine’s day. There will be chocolates and flowers.
For the last six years Highwater Mark has been the tool with which I have tried to make the world a better place. Coming on the heels of a dozen years as a full time activist and as Executive Director of a small, scrappy conservation group concentrating on wilderness protection and endangered species preservation, I needed to step back and see if what I had learned could be applied more broadly to help civil society. That was 2005. For the last six years I have worked with a wide spectrum of clients: Ontario’s Voices for Children and Victoria’s Steering Committee on Homelessness; Vancity Credit Union and Mountain Equipment Co-op, Salt Spring Coffee and Holland Barrs Planning. I worked with governments too: the BC Ministry of Labour and Citizen Services, the Regional District of Nanaimo, and the North Shore Recycling Project.
And I worked with friends old and new in the environmental movement: The Sierra Club BC, the Stanley Park Ecology Society, The Pacific Resources Conservation Society and the Flathead Wild team, including Wildsight and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
It was an often intense and rewarding time, and I learned a great deal, some of which I will try to capture in future blog posts.
I can’t say what the future holds for Highwater Mark. For the time being I’m going to continue to volunteer as a strategic advisor to MitoCanada, a new national health care organization serving people suffering from the debilitating and often life-threatening illness of mitochondrial disease. I’m also helping the Advocate for Children and Youth for the Province of Ontario with an organizational merger with another former client. And I’m going to do my best to synthesis the last six years of my work to try and leave behind a little insight into how leaders, and their organizations, work (and sometimes don’t) in the day to day effort to make the world a better place. And I will continue to publish books: that will be in my free time.
That’s what the last six years has been for me: an effort to help those who are helping children, families, the homeless, the sick, and the wild things and the places they need to survive. It’s been an honor to serve so many amazing people and organizations.
I see this next stage in my career as an evolution: my great hope is that I can bring all that I learned as an advocate and Executive Director together with the spiritual approach to leadership and advocacy I wrote about in Carry Tiger to Mountain, along with the new skills I built helping businesses, governments and social-profit organizations, to the Crown of the Continent. Sometimes when you’re undergoing these changes in trajectory it’s hard to see how one evolves into the next. But when you stand back its possible to see the arc of that evolution clearly, as I see it now.
My work with the Crown of the Continent Conservation Initiative will be to serve those who are protecting a massive swath of extraordinary land south from Alberta’s Kananaskis Country to Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, and east from the Rocky Mountain foothills and front to the Columbia Valley in the west. It will be conducted through the lens of preserving a climate-change ark; a refuge where wild things and the human communities that thrive along with them can change and adapt in a world of flux. It is one of the great challenges of our time, and I’m excited to find myself in the middle of it once again.
I have been preparing all of my professional life for a challenge and an opportunity like this. To bring together my passion for the mountains, for wilderness, for wild creatures; and to use the skills I’ve developed as a facilitator, coordinator, planner and advocate under one banner to make things just a little better, for the wild blue-green earth and all those who call it home.
Thanks for being a part of the last six years. I hope I can count on you to be along for the wild ride that starts on Monday.