By Amy Hubbard and Patrick Schuler 

Each year, students in the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) present an X Talk (similar to a TED talk) as part of their graduation activities. Alum and veteran, Patrick Schuler, gave an inspiring reflection on lessons learned and his outlook for the future.

XMNR faculty Patricia Raun, also a professor of theater at Virginia Tech and the Director of the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science, designed the assignment and led students to success. The goal of the assignment, said Raun, was to help students reflect on a transformational moment, experience, or discovery while in the program that helped broaden their perspective and enrich their understanding of the concepts of leadership, global mindset, and sustainability. “This assignment gives the students an opportunity to think deeply about a pivotal moment in their development, and to exercise the storytelling skills they are developing, while creating a digital record of an aspect of what they value as a leader,” Raun said. 

Patrick Schuler’s X Talk

XMNR alum Patrick Schuler

I was drawn to Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources program because I'm concerned about what humans are doing to the environment, and I wanted to do something about it. I figured that a master’s degree in natural resource management would give me the foundational knowledge of natural resource systems, how they interact, and what we can do to change human behavior to stop harming the environment and to preserve life for humans and other species on our planet. This is a daunting task, because if it were easy we would have already done it. I hoped that, armed with the latest scientific data and research, I could work with like-minded people to develop solutions to the problem of global climate change brought about by human activity.

Systems thinking
I devoured the coursework on natural resource systems, especially the sessions led by Professor Bruce Hull. My teammates and I spent a lot of time discussing the subject matter, and each assignment challenged an assumption we had, such as the utility of recycling, how industrial agriculture is the best way to feed the planet's population, and why fracking isn't the evil practice that many think it is. There is certainly room for debate on these topics and many others, but one of the main lessons of the natural resource components of the program is that many of the solutions to the climate change challenge are known. There will be scientific and technical progress on all the pressing challenges, and conditions will change and make it necessary to adapt our current solutions. The point of the program is that leadership is what is most lacking to address climate change challenges.

Challenging assumptions 
Leadership is the skill that I was least interested in developing through this program. As a former soldier and current  federal civil servant, I figured that there wasn't much else I could learn about leadership. I was fortunate to lead men and women in tough situations through multiple deployments and in combat operations. I worked at a U.S. embassy abroad as a Senior Defense Official and Defense Attaché, serving as the senior representative of the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to two foreign nations. I supervised small teams and large organizations to accomplish very difficult tasks, and I've managed hundreds of millions of dollars of government programs. So, given all this experience, I figured that while I always have lots to learn, leadership was not the skill I needed to focus on through the XMNR program.

XMNR alum Patrick Schuler in US Army service
Patrick Schuler in the U.S. Army

A learning mindset
My view changed as we progressed through the program. I realized that I was stuck in a hierarchical view of leadership and teamwork. Leadership encompasses more than getting people to do things they may not do otherwise. It includes sensemaking, stakeholder analysis, and understanding systems. Building networks and effective communications are key, especially with stakeholders outside of established communities.

I learned the most from my XMNR colleagues, especially my teammates. In my professional life I've worked within a community of people with similar backgrounds and experiences. There is nothing wrong with remaining within one field and dealing with people through shared experiences; in fact, it is how many people spend most of their careers. However, the problems associated with global climate change are just that, global. They require diverse stakeholders to come together to address problems. They require thinking that spans different groups, different interests, and different cultures. The XMNR faculty and my classmates helped me realize this and helped me to learn to be better at working within my comfort zone, and, more importantly, to be comfortable working outside it. I can't thank them enough for instilling a broader sense of what leadership truly means, how much I still need to learn, and how important it is that I do so. I thank all of them for this lesson.

Leadership is more than compelling others to do your will
The wicked problems of global climate change and sustainable development require much more than traditional and standard views of leadership. Active listening and following are just as important as barking orders, and "being in charge" is not the final state of a leader. A true leader never stops developing, is always ready for a challenge, and is ready to meet that challenge in whatever role the situation demands. The challenges we face are dire, and we need more leaders ready to act.

Watch Patrick's X Talk

The importance of leadership for the sustainability field and for career success
Patrick’s story is not uncommon. We often have students who question the necessity of the leadership component of the XMNR program, for various reasons, only to have a moment later on when it clicks for them.

XMNR Program Director Dr. David Robertson adds: “Students often ask, why do we emphasize leadership in the Executive Master of Natural Resources program, and why is it important for career success? The answer is threefold:

  1. Environmental and sustainability challenges require more than scientific and technical knowledge. These are complex systems that require diverse stakeholders to collaborate and work together to co-create a desirable future. We provide students with advanced leadership and influence skills to have a greater impact in the workplace and lead systems change in communities around the world.
  2. Employers increasingly seek employees with advanced interpersonal, collaboration, and communication skills and the ability to engage diverse stakeholders, navigate uncertainty, plan strategically, and lead change.
  3. As employees progress in their careers and take on more responsibility and larger management roles, advanced leadership and influence skills are increasingly important. 

We already have sufficient science and technology to address most environmental challenges; what we lack is effective leadership to create new opportunities for sustainable development. The XMNR program teaches students to lead from where they are, with or without authority, to influence the environmental and sustainability systems they care most about.”