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December 2000 Planet Main
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The Planet
The Four Challenges of Leadership in the Sierra Club

Tools for Leaders

With half a million members and hundreds of groups, activity sections and committees, the Sierra Club is a complex, many-tentacled beast. Our strength depends on our leaders' ability to balance the inevitable tensions - local and national, volunteer and staff, visionary and pragmatic. This special Planet pull-out section focuses on strategies Club leaders can use to make the organization, and the individuals within it, thrive.

The Roots of Sierra Club Leadership

In 1892, when the great naturalist and visionary John Muir founded the Sierra Club, he didn't do it alone. 

With him were 182 individuals committed to "exploring and protecting" the earth, bound together by a shared vision - a love for the natural environment. We can't do it alone today, either. Muir faced leadership challenges a century ago, and he could assemble almost the entire membership in a large room at the same time.

Today, with 600,000 members, 65 chapters, 389 groups and hundreds of committees and sections, the Sierra Club is a complicated organization. We have a presence at the local, state and national levels. We lead outings, organize communities to fight sprawl and protect wild places, endorse political candidates, raise funds through a variety of means, file lawsuits, and publish books and calendars. We're many parts, but one Club.

We have multiple generations of history and accomplishment - from wistful old-timers who recall when we focused on protection of public lands, to enthusiastic greenhorns who are jazzed about our Responsible Trade Campaign. 

We have too few volunteers, too little money, too little time and too many issues on our agenda. And we're fighting the richest and most powerful institutions on the planet - corporations and the governments that are too often beholden to them. 

Conflict Comes With the Territory

We also have all the messiness that comes with a democratic decision-making structure. We are inclusive and participatory. Leaders love and hate this democracy. We love that we have a voice; we don't always love that others do, too. With so many voices, it can take a long time to make decisions, and sometimes conflicts arise when it comes to determining priorities.

Sometimes this is glaringly apparent, especially in cases where Club members share the same long-term vision, but differ on how fast and directly we should pursue it. Some activists have no tolerance for anything but the most direct route - too much has been lost already, they would say. They don't want to consider compromises or negotiate within parameters defined by politicians, developers or others who stand to gain from environmentally destructive activities. They argue that intentional trade-offs are an abandonment of our values.

Others take a more pragmatic view and see the need to extract incremental victories wherever and whenever possible, even in less-than-optimal package deals that might contain setbacks. Club policy states that "incremental realization of the Club's long-term goals" is acceptable.

An example would be a wilderness bill that protects fewer roadless areas than our proposal, but doesn't weaken any protections. Or a land exchange, in which some ecologically important lands currently threatened are saved, while others currently protected are put at greater risk.

Club leaders with comparable knowledge and experience will draw the line in different places. In the end, after weighing all the considerations, it often comes down to a judgment call. Only rarely will all agree. We all have varying degrees of faith in the future and different senses of how progress occurs and how much time remains to affect change.

Finding Strength in Tension

With all these different forces at work within the Club, some tension is inevitable. But tension keeps bridges from falling down. Well-managed, this tension - of balancing local and national, volunteers and staff, young and old, broad and narrow agendas - can make us strong.

But how do we achieve that balance? That's where good leaders come in.

When we say "leader" here, we don't just mean those with specific titles like chair, or treasurer. We mean everyone who takes responsibility for work in the name of the Sierra Club. When you serve on a committee, lead an outing or meet with other organizations, you are acting as a Sierra Club leader.

In this feature, we discuss four challenges that Sierra Club leaders face in balancing what are often competing priorities. 

The first challenge is about focus, how to "see the big picture" and "focus on a few things." These are contrasting ways of looking at and approaching our work. Neither one is enough on its own. The effective leader honors both and balances them. 

The second challenge - "be inspired" and "inspire others"- is about building community, about getting and giving. A good leader isn't selfless. If the work isn't exciting or fulfilling, leaders won't last. And to be effective, leaders need to provide opportunities for others to find similar rewards. 

The third challenge - "harness the Club's resources" and "be accountable" - deals with achieving a balance between the benefits Club leaders receive and the responsibilities that come with them. In exchange for access to the Club's members, funds, reputation and know-how, leaders must follow the rules and explain them to others. 

The fourth challenge - "strengthen the Sierra Club internally" and "reach out to the community" - is about balancing the need to keep our own house organized and at the same time to keep reaching out. It takes time and attention to make the Club's internal process run smoothly, and it's critical work, but it doesn't mean much if we don't take that inner strength and project it into our communities.

On the following pages we explain more about these challenges, and give real-life examples from leaders who have met them head-on. The last page of this section is a "map" of the Club's structure, which includes both volunteers and staff.

Please note: One sign of the Club's complexity is that publishing these principles of leadership and a map of the organizational structure is potentially controversial. While we have bylaws and policies and charts, we don't always agree on their interpretation. Part of our goal in publishing this is to move closer to a consensus on how we function as an organization. Please let us know what you think. 

This Planet special feature was developed by the Office of Volunteer and Activist Services and the Organizational Effectiveness Committee. We welcome your feedback. Please contact Julia Reitan at

See the Big Picture and Focus on a Few Things

Legally, the Sierra Club is one organization. When we endorse candidates for public office, when we sign onto a lawsuit, when we lead an outing into the peaks of Nepal, it's all on behalf of the whole Sierra Club. 

We choose as an organization to be unified, as one corporation.

The Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation are organized differently. Their chapters are autonomous legal entities and don't "answer" to the national organization in the same way. 

In our case, priorities and policies must be set in an inclusive and participatory way. When we successfully integrate local and national concerns, when all parties feel their concerns have been heard, when everyone unites once a decision has been hammered out, the Club has unrivaled strength and effectiveness.

Our challenge as leaders is to use the knowledge and insights from our part of the Sierra Club to serve the entire organization and its mission. Whether we are deciding the annual budget, how to configure our field offices, how to raise and spend restricted funds or what our policies should be on setting and enforcing standards of accountability for ourselves, we all need to look beyond our own bailiwick to the larger field of Sierra Club goals. 

Some examples of not seeing the big picture: a chapter that appeals for funds locally by criticizing the national Club for how little it gives the chapter, an outings leader who doesn't want to include conservation material about the threats to a wild area because "that's a drag and this is about fun," an activist who attacks a local politician personally because of a disagreement about one issue even though his overall record is supportive.

But as important as it is, big-picture thinking by itself can be paralyzing. It's easy to be overwhelmed. Smaller, local, in-my-backyard issues, like a nearby wetland threatened by a developer, tend to galvanize people the most. The effective leader helps focus the energies of the local group or chapter on a few priority campaigns that volunteers care about, and, where possible, link that campaign to national efforts. For example, a local group might be trying to stop a subdivision, and federal rules might support or undermine those local efforts. As long as federal incentives subsidize rural development through highway spending, local efforts to stop roads might not be enough by themselves.

The Club's structure allows us to work on both levels to solve problems. Nationwide membership gives the Sierra Club clout with Congress and the White House, while local groups and chapters help us influence city council members, county commissioners and state officials. This one-two punch is a powerful combination.

The challenge is to create integrated campaigns that advance Club goals across all levels of local, state and national decision-making. One example of how the Club has done that is the Wildlands Campaign, which has linked local priorities to national ones. In 1999, the campaign released the "SPARE America's Wildlands" report, which focused on six national treasures and 52 special wild places to bring wildlands issues closer to home in each state. 

Many of these local places got attention from the public and the media because they were linked to national treasures like the Everglades. Following the release of the report, one newspaper in New Jersey said, "We in New Jersey know the Highlands are special. Now the Sierra Club has included it among their 52 neighborhood special places...."

At our best, we are an organization that works on each other's top priorities. Student activists in Louisiana pressured their senator for a key vote in support of the California Desert Protection Act in 1994 - even though most of them had never seen the desert. And California activists have helped Louisianans fight for tougher enforcement of laws governing refinery emissions.

Be Inspired and Inspire Others

Some volunteers take on leadership out of a sense of duty. That may be commendable, but being a leader because you're inspired and excited is more sustainable. 

If we're inspired, we're better able to inspire others - and attract future leaders. We don't want to pick our leaders by waiting until they go to the bathroom and appointing them in their absence.

A good leader isn't selfless. He or she should get something out of being a leader. For many, winning for the environment is first and foremost. When you achieve a concrete victory, or change the politics in your community, it's not just good for the environment, it's personally thrilling. It's what keeps you going. 

Other reasons people become leaders: To stretch themselves. To expand their skills. To get accolades and prestige. To wield political power in the organization and the community. 

Effective leaders not only acknowledge the rewards they get, but understand that part of leadership is making sure the Sierra Club is a rewarding place for others, a safe and secure place where everyone who wants to contribute feels welcome.

One of the fundamental parts of this responsibility - but one we often neglect - is making new people feel at home, while honoring the contributions of ongoing activists. 

For example, Oscar Gelders, the "grandfather" of the Bluegrass Group in Kentucky, announced at the beginning of one meeting that all new members and all 10-year anniversary members got a complimentary beer at the after-meeting social. Almost all of the 50 attendees came to the social. New members felt welcome, long-time members felt appreciated and everyone had fun.

Welcoming people doesn't necessarily require exceptional charisma or complex planning. It's mostly just being deliberate. 

Good leaders simply "give you their full attention," says Camille Armstrong, San Diego Chapter leader.

Armstrong says that when she first went to a Sierra Club meeting, no one spoke to her. Now that she's a chapter leader, she makes sure that new people are comfortable. 

"I work closely with the newcomers; I tell them, 'Don't worry that you don't know anything. Come and enjoy. Just watch and see what's going on.' These new people tend to keep coming," says Armstrong.

Being sensitive to individual motivations is critical, says desert activist Judy Anderson. "Some people are happiest when they find a niche and work from there for decades. Others want to move on to new territory, and prefer campaigns that have a concrete beginning, middle and end."

Thanking people for their contributions is a critical but often overlooked part of leaders' work in nurturing volunteers.

Texas field staffer Larry Freilich says of Nevada's Marge Sill: "If you work for her for 10 minutes, you get 10 minutes of praise."

Harness the Club's Resources and Be Accountable

When you become a Club leader, you are entering into a contract of sorts: "I will get benefits from the Sierra Club and I will fulfill responsibilities in return."

One big benefit, for example, is the right to speak, within your role, on behalf of the Club. If you call up a television station or newspaper in your capacity as chapter chair, a reporter will take your call. That's because you're representing a half-million-member organization with 100 years of grassroots-organizing experience.

One of the most important jobs Club leaders have is to win. To do so, leaders must avail themselves of the four main resources of the Club - members, money, reputation and know-how.

Our members are our most important resource; they drive the others. We don't have as much money as the corporations or governments we're elbowing, but we do have people power. As leaders, we not only have access to the Club members in our group or chapters, but, indirectly, to the entire membership of the Club.

These members are available in a variety of ways, from names on databases and mailing labels to flesh-and-blood people who can roll up their sleeves and get out into their communities. 

Then there's money. We rarely have enough of that, so spending it wisely is one of the leaders' key responsibilities. 

Less tangible resources, but just as valuable, are the Club's reputation and the expertise of our peers, as well as staff support and printed materials. 

As the leaders take advantage of these resources, they must remain accountable. One ongoing job of Club leaders is to regularly "inventory" the available resources. This includes not only the obvious, like funds, but also the more nebulous, like the strengths and weaknesses of the leaders, including themselves. 

With the resources come responsibilities. As one activist says, "How can you expect to save whales if you can't save receipts?"

Strengthen the Club Internally and Reach Out to the Community

The Sierra Club is an extended family. It includes members who joined the Club so they could explore their favorite hiking trail with new friends, as well as those who see the Club as a way to make democracy work for the environment.

We are Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, hunters and vegetarians, students and seniors, agnostics and ministers, newcomers and old hands. (We're not as ethnically diverse as we'd like to be, but we're working to change that.)

But we don't always agree with each other. (Some would call that an understatement.) One of the most valuable skills a leader can develop is to embrace the Club's diversity and keep it a safe and welcome place when there are strong differences of opinion. 

There's no formula for this. Sometimes it can be as simple as making all parties feel heard. The more freely participants can air their differences without fear they will be attacked, the more likely it is that they will buy into the group decisions.

One chapter chair in Washington uses this technique when an executive committee member wants to discuss something controversial. He tells that person, "I'll give you the last chance to speak." This means the member can listen to others without worrying about whether he or she will get a turn.

The Club does have a democratic process to make decisions, but using the process doesn't make everyone happy. The leaders' challenge is to help make decisions respectfully, then respect the decisions. 

All too often, even after making decisions in an inclusive way, we continue to debate the decision. Or ignore it.

For example, on more than one occasion, a disgruntled leader has spoken out against Club policy to the press. Others have used a Club title to express disagreement with a decision the organization made. These behaviors give a confusing impression of where the Club stands. These leaders are betraying the trust they have been granted as leaders. 

Perhaps most importantly, the democratic process requires a high degree of civility. One important rule that is all too often ignored is: praise publicly, criticize privately. In other words, don't broadcast an e-mail widely to air your differences with another volunteer or staff member.

Yes, we do want to win, but any victory we achieve by tearing the organization apart is not worth it. 

Club leaders have an obligation to facilitate decision-making, even if they personally disagree with the result, and then work to implement it. When leaders cannot do this, they should give up their leadership positions. 

As important as it is to nurture the internal process, however, we also have to reach out, to spread our message far and wide, to focus community attention on our priority campaigns. The effective leader balances attention between promoting a respectful internal process and aggressive external outreach.

Certainly we start by reaching out to our allies, the usual suspects who are already members of other conservation-minded groups. But there are a great many potential, even unlikely, allies we've never courted. 

For example, Lisa Carter, the former vice chair of the Oahu Group in Hawaii, helped organize a beach cleanup/voter-education event in 1998. Among the volunteers for the beach cleanup were the families of commercial and sport fishers. 

"They thought they were supposed to hate the Sierra Club," says Carter, "but when they discovered we sponsored the beach cleanup, they changed their tune." 

Not only that, they collected 500 bags of trash. 

Another example comes from Texas, where Marge Hanselman and the Houston Group built an alliance with the National Rifle Association to protect Katy Prairie. There was some rough sledding before the alliance solidified. When Hanselman first approached NRA members at a rod and gun show in 1996, there was mutual suspicion. "I knew we weren't going to talk about handguns or big game hunting in Africa," she says, but eventually the two groups did agree to work together to preserve wildlife habitat outside Houston.

Other important groups to reach out to include poor and minority communities. The Club's environmental justice and Inner City Outings programs are already doing so, but there is far more to do. 

One important point for leaders to remember in their outreach is to develop relationships and not depend too much on paper. 

Reporters write stories when they have spent time talking to an activist and developing trust and confidence. Politicians rarely develop convictions because of a well-reasoned white paper (though those are necessary backups), but because people they know and trust urge them to. 

We need to talk to our neighbors, to our members, to potential funders, to the media - and to the American people. We need to remember that human beings are not computers. They react to stories, not data. They want heroes and villains, not parts per million. They want laughter and tears, and a sense of drama, and yes, things that go bump in the night.

In 1997, when Iowa Republican Jim Leach agreed to be an original co-sponsor of a bill to end commercial logging on national forests, he credited a relationship with a constituent for his decision. Sheila Bosworth, from the Eagle View Group in Iowa, had visited Leach's Washington, D.C., office with her son in September. " 'No lobbying,' I promised Leach. I was there with my son as a tourist," she says.

Then she visited his district office a month later. They talked about her son's earlier visit, logging, then football, then logging again. When she left, she asked him to be an original co-sponsor. When a reporter from the Des Moines Register asked Leach why he became a co-sponsor, Leach said, "I told him that a thoughtful young lady came into my office and asked me to."

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