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Leadership Comes in Many Forms

September 27, 2022 Leadership
Dr. Steven Sherpard
By Steven Shepard LinkedIn

On Sept. 27, 1962 — 60 years ago today — Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" was released to the public. It was both a rallying cry for an environmental movement that had not yet started, and a polarizing narrative, a book that sparked environmental action across the globe.

I submit to you that it was also an exercise in the finest form of leadership.

Carson’s book painted a picture of an apocalyptic and very real human future created by our indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides, most specifically DDT. She argued we were moving inexorably toward a time when the joyous cacophony of birdsong, calling frogs and wildly exuberant insects in the spring would fall permanently silent. DDT was an indiscriminate killer. Once it entered the environment, it was there to stay, laying waste to not only the insect pests it was designed to target, but also pollinating moths, butterflies and bees, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and ultimately, our own children, thanks to its tendency to leach into the groundwater supply.

An Effective Leader Is a Gifted Storyteller

Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, a conservationist and a writer, was also a leader — and a gifted storyteller. The role of an effective leader is to paint a picture of a future that’s more desirable than the status quo. Leaders show their audience what could be, not what is, and then enroll them to help achieve it. And good storytellers don’t tell people what to do. They show them why it matters. "Silent Spring" painted a picture of what could be, in this case a future we didn’t want. She then went on to show us what we needed to do if we were to avoid the environmental apocalypse that she saw coming.

As a result Carson was asked to testify before a senate subcommittee on pesticides in June 1963. Seven years later, Time Magazine featured a photograph of environmentalist Barry Commoner on the cover of its environmental crisis issue, a crisis that Rachel Carson showed the world. Her timing was propitious: In the late 1960s and early '70s, Lake Erie was so polluted with industrial waste that it was, for all intents and purposes, biologically dead. One of the waterways pouring into Lake Erie was the Cuyahoga River, which was lined with heavy industry. Over the course of a decade, the river caught fire more than a dozen times. The river: not its banks, or the structures around it, but the river itself.

Rachel Carson’s clarion call exemplified the best kind of effective leadership. Seven years after her senate testimony, President Richard Nixon — yes, THAT Richard Nixon — announced the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and shortly thereafter, he signed into law the Clean Air Act.

During his 1970 state of the union message, Nixon had this to say:

“The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water ....

Through our years of past carelessness, we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called ....

We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone without regard to the consequences. Instead, we should begin now to treat them as scarce resources, which we are no more free to contaminate than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor's yard.”

Related Article: Moving Forward With a Grit and Growth Mindset

A Lesson in Leadership From One Woman's Vision

Sixty years ago, individual leadership in the form of a vision of what could be, delivered in a little book from a woman no one had ever heard of, created the modern environmental movement, and saved us from a catastrophic end. On this, the 60th anniversary of the publication of "Silent Spring," we should take a lesson from Carson and all the others who fight to preserve the sanctity of the natural world.

Leadership comes in many forms. It doesn’t have to be in the boardroom.

About the Author

Dr. Steven Shepard is the founder of the Shepard Communications Group in Williston, Vt.

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