Hear from session chair and Ocean Leader, Charlie Gough, on her takeaways from the Edinburgh Ocean Leaders digital event at Monaco Ocean Week: A New Wave of Ocean Leadership: Promoting Innovative and Inclusive Leadership to Save The Ocean.
A New Wave of Ocean Leadership
Indonesia, Ireland, Madagascar, Australia, Chile and Scotland… what do seven women from countries around the world have in common? They are all phenomenal leaders working to tackle ocean issues, treading their own path, overturning existing stereotypes about leadership and in turn, inspiring other women to engage in environmental issues that they are passionate about.
What makes an Ocean Leader?
On a recent panel discussion hosted by Edinburgh Ocean Leaders at the Monaco Ocean Week – a week-long event that brings together stakeholders to debate ocean conservation issues – we discussed what it is to be a leader in the ocean space.
An impressive set of panelists brought rich discussion and highlighted the role women are playing in leading the way in ocean conservation, ocean literacy, ocean policy, and ocean health.
The session was opened by Olivier Wenden the Vice President and CEO of Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation. In his stimulating introduction, Olivier urged all those involved in discovering and protecting the oceans to recognise themselves as leaders and to support others to do the same.
Each of the panelists then shared their experience of leadership in ocean conservation. The stories told were a fantastic selection of remarkable actions being led by women around the world, including breaking down gender norms and encouraging environmental stewardship through surfing and swimming in Sri Lanka and Iran, supporting indigenous practices alongside community well-being and marine conservation in Indonesia, connecting scientists and international policy makers to protect biodiversity in the high-seas, promoting community-led mangrove conservation in Madagascar and sharing ocean literacy practices through Latin America.
While all the stories were different, there was a common thread in that each of the panelists spoke of leaders that had inspired them, or the people who they themselves have inspired to take positive ocean action. The broad variety of people and networks that made up these stories did an excellent job of portraying the diversity of ocean leadership that already exists.
In discussion, the panelists highlighted that while there are many more leaders with inspirational stories, there are both intrinsic and extrinsic barriers to emerging leaders in conservation that need to be addressed. In particular, more spaces are needed where emerging leaders are able to connect, share stories and experiences, and recognise and develop their strengths and potential as leaders through coaching and mentoring.
What came across strongly in all of the panelist presentations and the following conversation was that there isn’t a set criterion to be a leader. However, it was clear that the ocean leaders present at this panel and those they spoke of shared the following traits:
In all of the leadership stories that we heard, the leaders were highly passionate about the work that they are doing. Whether that is engaging communities in conservation and natural resource management in Madagascar or Indonesia, engaging policy makers to make better decisions that take account of the health of the oceans and the health of the people who rely on it, or engaging women to explore spaces that they may have been previously excluded.
The second shared attribute was that each of them told a story of courage and determination. Many of them leading the way in their field where social norms meant there were few if any women before them. That may be making big waves in the surf industry, leading physically demanding field research, speaking authoritatively to power, or continuing to chase a vision of positive ocean change when things are stacked against you.
What was striking was the shared humility of these astounding women. Each of them recognizing that while what they have achieved both alone and together with their communities was remarkable, they each resonate with not feeling like they could really be called a ‘leader’ that this term was meant for someone else.
Promoting Innovative and Inclusive Leadership to Save the Ocean
There has been much written about how social stereotypes of leaders (particularly western stereotypes) are predominantly male and white, and this bias (be it conscious or unconscious) is powerful. It means we can fail to see the leadership potential in others, and so we select the same leader profiles time and again reinforcing our own biases and upholding the stereotype for future leaders. Perhaps what is most concerning is that this bias is internalised, and we fail to recognise the leadership potential within ourselves.
The panel presentations and discussion at Monaco Ocean Week highlighted that there already exists an abundance of leaders around the world that exemplify the diversity that is needed to address critical ocean threats. What we need is to see and hear these leaders more frequently and in more spaces. This will certainly not only lead to better decisions being made in the present but owing to the power of seeing someone that looks like you in a position of leadership, it will help break down barriers for more and diverse and inclusive leadership in the future.
To transform our thinking of ocean leadership we need to bring our passion, courage and humility. We need to question our own biases and keep providing emerging leaders a platform to practice, or choosing to amplify the voices and experiences of other leaders. Taking positive action is the only way we will transform to a model of leadership needed to save the oceans, and now, is the time for action.
Watch the recording of Edinburgh Ocean Leaders A New Wave of Ocean Leadership panel event at Monaco Ocean Week here