If you want to understand how to transform conflict into smarter results and stronger relationships, watch Alan Honick’s short film Seeing the Forest.
It’s a story about transformation—from singled-minded management to inclusive leadership; from positional conflict to values-based collaboration; from focusing on discrete objects (trees) to seeing integrated systems (the forest ecosystem: trees, salmon, and let’s not forget the owls).
Who could forget the the spotted owl that became synonymous with strife between loggers and environmentalists in the late 1980’s. Mounting tensions led President Clinton to convene the Forest Summit in 1993, which resulted in the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan.
The NW Forest Plan designated certain areas as habitat reserves and others as open to logging. But the Suislaw National Forest, located on the central Oregon coast, was so dense with salmon bearing rivers that the habitat buffers effectively meant that almost none of the forest could be managed for timber.
For 40 years, the mission of Forest Service staff in the Suislaw had been to sell timber and build roads to support logging operations. After the forest plan, Jim Furnish, the Supervisor of the Forest Service in the Suislaw, saw three possibilities going forward: fight the old fight, give up, or find a new way.
He opted to find a new way, which meant reimagining the mission of the Forest Service to look at the whole ecosystem across the watershed in ways that would restore and sustain ecological processes and functions.
“I didn’t have a sense of where we were going to go from there,” said Furnish. “There was a lot of dread, and anxiety. Certainly for me, how I would conduct myself as a leader, in front of an organization, when you’re expected to have answers…I had no idea what the implications were for our future.”
With his uncertainties in hand, he focused the forest service on its new mission and participated in the newly formed watershed council. The watershed council was open to the public and included community members with competing interests from the timber industry and environmental activism. Their conversations were guided by a core question: What would make life better here?
They agreed not to dwell on their differences, but instead to focus on their common goal of salmon restoration. By pursuing their shared purpose, the watershed council created space for participatory leadership and opened the door to different conversations, consensus decision-making, and a whole new way of seeing the forest.
To learn more about how this transformation was accomplished, watch Seeing the Forest.
How might you apply these lessons of participatory leadership to unlock the potential in your organization?