NATURE-BASED LEADERSHIP: Leading from the Heart of Nature

About the Author

Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., served as founding President and CEO of C&NN from April 2006 to July 2013, and continues to serve as a consultant to the Network with a special focus on international activities. She is also Research Scholar and Executive Director of the Nature Based Leadership Institute at Antioch University New England. Cheryl is an innovator, entrepreneur, author, and educator who is among those instrumental in developing the worldwide movement to reconnect children and nature.

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Throughout my life, I have been influenced and inspired by direct contact with nature. From formative childhood experiences to acting as the primary focus of my career, nature has nourished my sense of purpose, vitality and conscience.

Over the years, with the support of family and colleagues, I have developed what I call “natural guides” to ground my thoughts and actions in ways inspired by lessons from nature. In 2006, when Richard Louv, Amy Pertschuk, Mike Pertschuk, Martin LeBlanc, Marti Erickson and I co-founded the Children & Nature Network (C&NN), we thought about how the natural guides could be applied to growing this worldwide movement to reconnect people, especially children, with nature. We consciously put the ideas to work. Over the years, these guides have been applied not only in the movement to reconnect children with nature, but also in the development and dissemination of leading environment education programs, and, most recently, in a new effort to coalesce this thinking into the emerging field of “nature based leadership.”

I’d like to share three of the natural guides (there are more!) here, along with brief insights into how they apply to the children and nature movement. Consider these as examples of the emerging field of nature-based leadership the purpose of which is to apply lessons from nature to create and sustain healthy environments of all kinds within ourselves, with others, and within the Earth itself.


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In ecosystems, diversity tends to be an indicator of health. Diversity assures resilience. Whereas monocultures, in contrast, are vulnerable. From an educator’s perspective, it is important to respect the varied learning styles and modalities that children and youth use to learn and grow. Within a community, we must value and learn from our differences to ensure that we can create a healthy whole. When we think about the importance of reconnecting people with nature, beginning with children, this natural guide reminds us to think in terms of the many ways in which people can choose to participate in this movement— in their daily lives, in their priorities, and in where/how they live, learn, work and play. From individual children and their families to whole communities, the movement to reconnect children and nature will inherently be resilient to the extent that we embrace the many ways in which people can help heal this broken relationship.


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A niche, in the ecological definition of the word, is how an organism makes a living. Because a niche requires action, it means the organism has something to do. Every organism has a niche, or role, and is therefore inherently important and warrants respect.

The word “niche” is alive with possibilities. A person can have multiple niches, or various niches over time. Everyone has a contribution to make. It is crucial that we recognize this concept as educators, citizens, community participants, and members of a world community. At C&NN, we know this movement is taking form at every level: in individual children’s choices to play outside and take their friends; in families starting Nature Clubs for Families; among grassroots leaders starting children and nature initiatives in communities throughout the world; in whole communities; and at state, provincial and federal levels. This movement is neither just bottom-up nor is it just top-down. It is everywhere. And everyone has a niche, a role, a way to make a difference.


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Although competition exists in natural systems, its role has been overemphasized. Cooperation is prevalent and actually more pervasive than competition in the natural world. An effective movement to create social change is exemplified by cooperation. Most of history’s major social movements can be characterized by people of all walks of life and all political persuasions coming together with a common purpose. At C&NN, we consciously foster and encourage community-based collaborations to build the children and nature movement. The C&NN Community Action Guide, downloadable from the Network’s web site, is a tried-and-true guide to implementing social change through respectful cooperative efforts—a process honed for decades by Dr. John Gardner and John Parr and others, and applied, for the first time, to building this movement.

Ecology of Hope

Each of these natural guides, in combination with the other guides, helps to form what I call an “ecology of hope.” As C&NN Board member, David Orr, says, “Hope is a verb with its shirt sleeves rolled up.” We have work to do. The children and nature movement is planting, nourishing and growing an ecology of hope with lessons from nature to help guide our way.

Note: This fall Cheryl is offering a course and workshop in Nature Based Leadership at Antioch University New England. You can come participate in a workshop setting, indoors and outdoors, for the three-day intensive October 21 – 23 at a time that is often the stunningly beautiful glory of New England’s fall colors. Or, you can come for the three days and then also participate online in writing and discussion in order to earn three graduate credits.

Additional Reading & Resources
The Ecology of Hope by CherylCharles
Nature Based Leadership Institute, Antioch University
Are You a Leader? by Richard Louv
Explore C&NN’s Research Library for more evidence on the benefits of nature for children
Nature Clubs for Families Took Kit provides worksheets, templates, examples, and more resources for getting your club up and running.
C&NN’s Natural Leaders Network

Commentaries here and elsewhere on the C&NN website are offered
to inform readers and to stimulate new thinking and debate. C&NN does not officially
endorse every statement, report or product mentioned in every commentary.

1 Comment

  1. Janani Eswar

    Thank you for this! Enjoyed and resonated with every word. It occurs to me both from reading this and from talking to you that a life lived with these principals is one where you are completely comfortable with yourself. Another’s success or opinion isn’t seen as a threat to you and your ideas.

    Also wanted to add a note that the link to the Antioch University course doesn’t seem to be working right now.



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