Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Corner (Ecological) Office

I had read this book awhile ago, but Kendra just got to reading it, so we've had more of a chance to chat about it lately.

In ecology, there are a lot of nuts and bolts to master. Statistics, experimental design, the literature...Our discipline is not a quick one to master. Yet, when you get to the highest levels of the functioning of the discipline, success has less and less to do with the nuts and bolts than the more sociological aspects--basically how to get people to work together. As a scientific society, we recognize this a bit--we have fellowships for interacting with the press or Capitol Hill, but not with each other. It's unfortunate, too, because the failures and dysfunction are costly yet utterly preventable.

Any airport bookstore is filled with similar topics, but the best book I've found that provides advice on how to be a leader is Adam Bryant's The Corner Office. Bryant writes a weekly column for The New York Times Sunday Business section called The Corner Office. Weekly, he interviews a CEO of a different company and asks them essentially the same questions. When did you first have to manage people? Where did you learn to manage people? How do you hire people? What recent insights do you have on leadership? Almost every week the column is interesting and there are a lot of people who have thought carefully about how to manage people. The book is a compilation of his interviews to date.

There are many lessons in the book. There should be. Leading and managing is complex and just one thing wrong can trip up any project no less corporation. You have to take care of people and let them know they are appreciated. You have to provide a vision that can be easily translated to day-to-day activities. You go to the lowest levels for unfiltered information and to learn all the aspects of work that surround you. You have to be fair and even. You have to appreciate failure.

William Bond and I were talking about similar issues on our trip through Afri-homa. He remembered his first year at UCT. He said that his department use to have a brilliant chair. William described how after his first year--a year consumed by teaching courses for the first time along starting a research project--his chair found him and said, "Good job, William. You made it." And you could tell how that one recognition meant a lot to him.

So much dysfunction in any group, whether a project, a department, or a scientific society, comes from not feeling appreciated. And it costs so little for leaders to appreciate others and let oxygen be consumed on more important issues.

There are a host of other aspects of being a leader of a team that need to be carried out well. Bryant might not nail them all, but there are stories in there worth learning that help advance our discipline as much, if not more, than the latest statistical technique or meta-analysis.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A bit of inspiration to travel

Photo from Wildflower Wonders by Bob Gibbons of Tien Shan Mountains in China (Princeton University Press).
Books can be good for inspiration. Some books inspire with ideas. Others with adventure. Sometimes just photos that inspire one to travel to new places.

I had a chance to read Wildflower Wonders: The 50 best wildflower sites in the world over the past few days. The author, Bob Gibbons, shows off some impressive photography of beautiful grasslands from around the world. From the Tien Shan Mountains to the Outer Hebrides to Namaqualand.

It's more than just a coffee table book of pictures, though. Gibbons does an excellent job weaving together cultural and geological history with the ecology of the areas in ways I wish I could. His discussion of the settlement history of the Julian Alps or the unique geology of the Dolomites in Italy that differentiates its flora from nearby limestone grasslands.

I think we forget to be biogeographers too often and forget that we can learn as much from travels as experimentation. And it's our travels that shape our experiments. Even those that work at the global scale often see just pixels and not the uniqueness of place that truly defines geography.

I have little but praise for this book. It would have been nice to see more pictures of grass rather than the less-than-subtle, somewhat ostentatious wildflowers. But, I guess that's my job on the next trip.

[Thanks to Princeton University Press for the advance copy.]