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Program Design

What's new?

The Earth Leadership Program builds on 20 years of experience pioneered by the Leopold Leadership Program.  Now, as a program of Future Earth, we will embed this work within a broader international context. Future Earth works with a global network of scientists, researchers, and innovators to champion many kinds of transdisciplinary research and engaged science that will be needed to support rapid transformations towards sustainability. Bold, connected, engaged science leaders will be critical to this work. The Earth Leadership Program is committed to extending and expanding the work of the Leopold Leadership Program by relaunching the North American cohort, and by working with our partners to develop additional regional cohorts in other parts of the world.

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In North America, we have also shifted the business model by bringing in universities as partners and building a coalition of foundation partners to support the work. This shift is possible because, after 20 years of work by the Leopold Leadership Program, the impact of the program on the careers of fellows is powerful and  clear: Of the 213 Leopold Leadership Fellows, over half are now in leadership positions, and the connection between fellows continues to support increase their collective impact.


Over the next year, the structure of the Earth Leadership Program will continue to evolve as we seek to build greater connections among existing fellows, bring new fellows into the program, and build new programs around the world. 


As a program of Future Earth, the Earth Leadership Program will build and connect a network of regional programs, each supporting a growing community of exceptional, engaged academics dedicated to collective leadership and transdisciplinary research. To do so, we will build on and scale the models, training, and impact that the Leopold Leadership Program pioneered during the past 20 years. With support from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, we are relaunching the North American cohorts that were the focus of the Leopold Leadership Program and are working with our partners around the world to establish additional regional cohorts. 


The Earth Leadership Program prepares researchers to work together as effective agents of change by providing tools and perspectives to help participants cross traditional disciplinary and sector boundaries. Collaborating with other researchers and with networks of stakeholders is critical to address complex sustainability challenges.   


The fellowship training model is built around a collaborative approach that values co-design with diverse stakeholders and prepares participants to develop and execute transdisciplinary projects. The training thus introduces tools that enable groups to self-organize and transform systems in a networked way, rather than simply improving personal skills or preparing faculty to become higher education administrators.

What's the training experience?

Over the years, the Leopold Leadership Program has developed and refined a thoughtful process for drawing out a new kind of leader. The Earth Leadership Program continues this process.



The first step is allowing the right people to sign up. Rather than ask senior faculty to nominate rising stars, we prefer to let the right people step forward. Pursuing committed, transdisciplinary work isn’t for everyone. It takes a person who is motivated to go beyond their normal service duties to make change because they believe it’s right and necessary. Earth Leadership fellows are leading academics willing to step out of their comfort zones to contribute to the common good.



Personal change takes time. It’s hard to form new habits and mindsets. The Earth Leadership Program provides opportunities for participants to envision their own futures as well as the futures they want to see. We provide time for discussions with colleagues, listening walks, and journal writing. Whatever your idiosyncratic method of synthesizing ideas may be, we make space for it.



We have found that the best outcomes happen when fellows are able to get away from the demands of job, family, and friends. Equally important, we are committed to creating safe, low-risk retreat environments so that fellows can acquire new skills without fear. Our experience shows that providing the time and space to practice new skills, with peers, in a supportive environment, increases the odds that the skills fellows learn will be used long past the training. 



After intensive work, our fellows go back to their respective universities. We send them home with practical tools: a personal development plan, a network of 200+ fellows to contact with questions, specific goals and timelines, and small support groups to mastermind problems as they arise. 


The program addresses a series of leadership questions and builds on fellows’ individual experiences and competencies. The learning is both facilitated and self-directed, and as concepts, tools, and strategies are presented, participants have time to practice and get feedback. Fellows are engaged from morning to evening, balancing the day between highly interactive sessions and reflective activities such as journal writing or one-on-one debriefing conversations. Time is set aside at the end of each afternoon for fellows to take a walk or run, challenge one another to a pick-up game of basketball or croquet, or take part in other unstructured activities. Evening sessions provide time for further exchange and may include case studies from alumni fellows and other invited guests.

In the year between their training sessions, fellows practice new skills at their home institutions or in other venues to apply what they’ve learned. Activities may include:

  • Interviewing for information to fill gaps in their network 

  • Incorporating what they’ve learned into their work teaching and mentoring students and postdocs

  • Expanding their skills in facilitating interdisciplinary groups.


Fellows are on the leading edge of developing the practices that are needed for complex problem-solving and they are critical resources to each other. As a network, the fellows provide powerful ongoing support to one another. During the practice year they organize periodic check-ins in pairs or small groups to remind themselves of the short- and long-term goals they set for themselves in their action plans. Fellows are expected to manage their time in order to engage fully in learning from their practice.

The following June, the fellows reconvene in a final session to integrate their learning from the practice year, learn new tools, and articulate to each other their refined visions for knowledge to impact. This experience enables fellows to decide where, when, and how to engage for the greatest impact in furthering their vision for change.

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After their fellowship year, fellows are expected to:

  • Build on what they’ve learned to create a positive impact on decision-making about the environment and sustainability

  • Share with their graduate students the skills learned in the course of the fellowship and mentor students and others in their development as leaders

  • Contribute to the sustainability of the Earth Leadership Program by providing ongoing feedback, sharing best practices, and serving as coaches and mentors to other fellows

Leadership context: Areas of focus

For lasting change, we need a new type of leader, one who uses a collaborative model to co-create solutions with others. We need leaders who listen, and who commit to endeavors for the long haul. Our model flies in the face of the traditional Western hero. Our leaders are not lone rangers, cowboys, or solitary geniuses. They are team players who use scientific and emotional intelligence to bring society together. This brand of leadership might not look flashy, because it isn’t. But with grit, practice, and patience, it works.


What it means to be a scientist now is different than it was 30 years ago. Back then astronauts weren’t sharing views of space over social media and ecologists generally kept to their data. But in the same way that scientists have learned to speak with the media directly about their research—and universities have integrated communications classes into science departments—new times call for new roles.


More than ever, scientists are being called to step into leadership roles to solve the environmental crises that matter in each community. We have the credibility and knowledge to make a difference–but we need nuanced leadership skills to ensure that our voice has influence. We concentrate on three broad areas in our collective leadership training:


Individual leadership


Deepening awareness of leadership style, identifying areas for growth and development, and creating sustaining practices

  • Assess personal leadership type and qualities

  • Articulate a vision of what matters; identify and clarify purpose

  • Gain confidence by articulating a leadership plan with a set of practices


Facilitating collaboration
and networking

Building capacity to engage a group of people, enabling them to think together

  • Learn frameworks and models for effective working group collaboration and dialogue

  • Interview for information to fill gaps in their network to fulfill their vision for change

  • Build capacity for working effectively with stakeholder partners, graduate students and colleagues

  • Experience an on-going support group where each individual feels safe to try and share learning


Understanding systems

Making an impact by inspiring innovative, creative, collaborative transdisciplinary research projects


  • Diagnose and design four layers of a system: action, structure, tone, and identity

  • Learn systems thinking tools: actor and trend mapping

  • Apply systems design framework to a specific sustainability challenge

Collective leadership framework

The Earth Leadership Program embraces a leadership model that encourages individuals to cross boundaries and work collaboratively to transform systems. This collective leadership model is well-suited to academic researchers who rely on broad networks to advance sustainability.


Fellows hone a unique set of competencies that allow them to become agents of change. First, they recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, and then develop strategies for reaching out to others. Through this relational framework, they gain insights on how best to create alignment among those involved and how to build—and sustain—momentum on a project. The key leadership dimensions that are integrated into our programs are:


Assess challenges and strengths


Gather multiple perspectives


Understand context and networks


Create alignment on shared goals and directions


Develop credible, relevant solutions


Inspire ongoing action

Bringing training to universities and networks

In light of the need to meet growing demand, we are also working with teams or networks of researchers within the same university. We began this work in 2010 when Jon Foley, the former director of the Institute for the Environment at University of Minnesota invited us to design and facilitate a program for their fellows. That partnership continued when Jessica Hellman, the current director, offered to co-host the Leadership Teach-In in May 2017, where teams from universities had the opportunity to learn from one another about program design and by participating in train-the-trainer skill sessions.


We continue to work with universities at multiple levels, from graduate students to mid-career faculty programs, by advising in planning sessions and/or by providing on-site training and follow-up. Our approach is best described as a train-the-trainer model in order to expand the in-house capacity of universities.


We are also participating in resource exchange networks so that we can contribute to our resource portal and similar platforms of other networks. You will find how-to guides on multiple topics, written by fellows and sustainability leadership facilitators and trainers. We hope that this approach will build the field of transdisciplinary researchers.

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