How Wilderness Can Inspire Us to Lead

by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes, Leading Wild.

We humans live between two cultural imperatives. Eco-culture: our being part of the natural world, dependent on living soil, plants and animals for our sustenance; on forests and oceans for a stable climate; on biodiversity for medicines and our sense of wellbeing. Then our human-culture in which we can buy whatever we want, live in cities and lose sight of our eco-cultural connection. As human-culture destroys much of our eco-culture and we threaten our very existence, we must continue to ask: how will we lead change to reconcile these two imperatives?

I stayed once on the island of Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand. The expats there would often say “aren’t we lucky living in paradise…?” I wanted to reply, “but this isn’t paradise, this is paradise lost,” but I never quite had the courage. Koh Phangan is on the same latitude as Costa Rica, where I spent four years as a wildlife guide. Costa Rica is vibrant with life, with wild life. It is famous for ecotourism. Its bird species run into the hundreds, sloths and monkeys are common to see. In Koh Phangan, on the other hand, the bird species I saw regularly could be counted on just one hand. Wild mammals on the island amounted to little more than a few bats, some squirrels and a troop of monkeys that lived in a fragment of forest high on the mountain. The beaches were beautiful but I was left with a sense of unease – the feeling that something was missing. A sense of loss, a vulnerability.

What gives us a sense of wellbeing? I know that for me the more wildness there is around me, the better I feel. Hearing the call and song of animals and birds is part of everything being ok. I was walking one evening recently with a friend, when we stopped to listen to a song thrush calling in the top of a nearby tree. A sound so evocative of England, of home. “Can you imagine?” I said, “if the song thrush became extinct, it would feel like a part of me was missing.” After some thought, he replied. “Generations past might have said that about the nightingale, but now it is so rare that we don’t even know what it sounds like.”

And there it was, a perfect example of shifting baseline syndrome. How can we know that something is missing if it was never in our experience? The unease I felt in Koh Phangan is now omnipresent in my life back in England. I wonder if it was always there, unidentified, or if living in the wilds of Costa Rica woke in me a more primal sense of my being in relation to nature. This feeling increasingly becomes part of what motivates and guides me in my work and in the way I live. It has helped me recognise and deconstruct the drive within me for what human-culture defines as success and find a different narrative to guide my life gained from my eco-cultural self. This brings to light another question about leadership. How can we be sure that we are not inadvertently dragging the imagery of the natural world deeper into the machinery of efficiency and profit that drives our human-culture? How can we be sure that we are not merely adding the wild to the stock of tradable commodities?

Corcovado national park is the crown jewel of Costa Rica’s park system, located on the remote Osa peninsula. It was described by National Geographic as ‘the most biologically intense place on earth,” with 140 species of mammal and an astonishing 367 species of birds. Can spending time in the wildness of such a place help reset our shifted baseline and discover our eco-cultural connections? I believe so. Such experiences, taken with the right mindset, are a window into what life is within an intact ecosystem characterised by fantastic biodiversity. As we become steeped in the wilderness, we sink into being rather than doing and, if we allow it, something happens – we start to break down the perception of our being as separate from the rest of existence, and a broader perspective arises.

This broader perspective is our eco-cultural perspective. It is not an intellectual paradigm, it is an embodied experience. I can’t put it better than Peter Reason who wrote “We need to honour again the wisdom of the body, locating knowing in the experience of sensation instead of intellectually elaborated paradigms of thought…. our body is that piece of wilderness that we carry around with us all the time…”

If we could experience ourselves as part of a greater whole it would be natural for us to see protection of our wider environment as part of protection of the self, because they are one and the same thing. This would liberate us from the sense of guilt and self-sacrifice which often comes with environmental and sustainability agendas. I believe right action toward our environment would be the natural consequence of such an ecological consciousness. Inspiration for new leadership narratives would be derived from such a perspective. But this inspiration can only be gained through a deep personal journey into our eco-cultural being.

To guide people on such a journey is the aim of the Leading Wild retreat on the Osa peninsula that I am organising with Professor Jem Bendell. He is involved in a “Leadership and Spirituality” initiative of the Forum of Young Global Leaders and is convinced, as am I, that reconnecting with wilderness can help bring a new consciousness to our leadership practice. “Despite attempts to approach it as a technical skill-set, to express leadership is to embody our sense of what matters in life” explains Professor Bendell. “So the basis of our leadership is our awareness of the nature of reality. Being away from the city, office and inbox allows a different sense of that reality and thus new insights on what to do and how.” Part of what we will explore whilst surrounded by wilderness is what our own leadership might look like when reconnected with the wild.

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