I spent the past week meeting with my extended team in Boise. This is the team that I was asked to lead a year and a half ago, but this week was the first time I’ve met the full group of university cooperators. I drove away from what was essentially a week of visioneering feeling quite inspired and hopeful. This is an incredibly talented and passionate group of folks, and I’m very pleased to be a part of the team.

I drove my camper up to Boise and am now making my way back home. I’m camped tonight under the Grand Teetons on the west side in an absolutely lovely spot. I came across above Craters of the Moon and stopped there for a brief hike and cave exploration this morning. Along my way, I was listening to an audiobook – Start with Why by Simon Sinek. It’s one of those self-improvement, business leadership types of books. I’m always a bit skeptical of that sort of thing, right up there with self help books, but I always seem to get something out of everything I read.

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The title of this book intrigued me, and what I thought might be the case with the short description I read is certainly holding my attention. I spent a little bit of time on a strategic science exercise a while back and did some thinking about why questions vs. what and how questions in science. Sinek poses the idea that great leaders know exactly why they are doing whatever it is they are doing and use that as the focus that inspires their organizations, companies, or other followers. Although the author gets a bit repetitive, he makes some very good points that have been quite thought provoking thus far. His claim is that we make all of our decisions in the limbic brain based on emotion, that we use the thinking part of our brain to explain why we made the decision we did, and posits that leaders who want to inspire must connect with emotions in their followers (mostly focused on customers in a business sense) by getting to the “why” motivations.

Sinek goes into depth on a number of examples, from Apple Computer to Southwest Airlines, of companies and their leaders who brought about great success in leading entire industries by having a rock solid grasp of why they were doing whatever they were doing and made that their focus and starting point – for example, Apple’s drive to disrupt the status quo while just happening to make computers. He sites other examples of leaders and companies that have focused on what they do without a clear why and thus spend quite a bit of time wandering – for example, Dell’s brief foray into MP3 players juxtaposed with Apple’s transformation of the music industry.

What I’ve heard so far has certainly struck some chords with me coming away from my meetings this week. In listening to the book, I was a bit chagrined to admit that we focused the majority of our time discussing what and how questions and very little on the why. We are working on envisioning a whole new focus for our group, using the data our program has produced over the last number of years to analyze threats to biodiversity and form up a robust National Biodiversity Assessment for the U.S. We only started getting into the why questions on the last day when we spent some time thinking about marketing and communicating what we plan to produce.

So, I’ve been asking myself, as I’ve been traveling down the road, how I would describe what it is about this pursuit that clearly and concisely states why it’s important and why I connect with it at a level that is beyond what I can put clearly into words. Here’s what I’m thinking it comes down to:

No species should become extinct because of human ignorance.

At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do in our program is shine a light on what’s happening at the grandest scale we can, based on our jurisdiction and influence, with species and their habitats through time. The team has spent the last number of years building up a national database of terrestrial, aquatic, and marine species, a characterization of habitat, and a robust database of conservation measures designed to protect habitats. We spent the last few days working on figuring out how we can best move forward with characterizing and understanding threats or agents that will change the status of biodiversity and projecting what we think may happen under future scenarios.

At the end of the day, that’s what we’re going to do, but the reason we’re doing it is to provide actionable intelligence to resource managers, policy makers, and any interested human being who should be informed about what’s happening so they can consider the information in deciding on any number of actions that will impact drivers of change. As an objective science organization, we’re not in the business of making those decisions, but we are in the business of observing, measuring, modeling, and understanding the complex earth system and reporting our finding with clarity and precision. And the purpose of communicating our findings is to inform society and those who are in the business of making decisions so that they can consider everything we know in what they decide.

Looking at it through the lens of Start with Why, I believe each member of our team has within our limbic brains a set of synapses that result in all of us feeling good about a world where many species thrive and find balance in the earth system lifecycle. We know, from the preponderance of scientific evidence, that Homo sapiens is the single most impactful driver of change on the planet and that only our species has the power to decide how we want our planet to become – what parts of it we want to survive and what parts we are willing to let die off. The actions of our species on this planet have eradicated thousands of species that took many more thousands of years to evolve. A good number of those extinctions have happened and are happening without our direct knowledge and have yet to be discovered. Our actions that have been responsible for those extinctions are not direct but indirect and sometimes far removed, giving us an easy ability to ignore or deny the connection.

So, we feel that way “at heart” because of all of the experiences and knowledge we have gained through our careers, but we’re also scientists who have to pursue balance between thinking and feeling in order to observe the earth system as objectively as we can and report our judgments clearly but without overt passion. We have to be willing to be wrong in our hypotheses in order to develop tests that are fair and advance not only the scientific knowledge of today but also what will follow tomorrow and in years to come.

So, I go back to my possible statement of why we are doing what we’re doing:

No species should become extinct because of human ignorance.

The first part of this statement, no species should become extinct, is truly how I feel. That part of the statement resonates with some deep part of me. The value I hold for life is why I got into biology as a teenager, found a passion for trying to understand what was going on in the living world around me, and has kept me going in public service all these years despite the sometimes-difficult path from lower pay, bureaucratic bullshit, and lack of support from politicians and some of the general public. But the scientist in me has to recognize my place and acknowledge that my job is to inform others who will make decisions about what we do as a community.

Though interspecies competition for resources is a fundamental law of life, equilibrium and balance between species is how nature brings itself into alignment eventually. As the only current sentient species that we know about, we think that our species is the only one that can grasp and think deeply about the broader spectrum of life on earth. The concept of ignorance may apply to the young Albert’s squirrel that hasn’t yet learned how dangerous the road to town is from my house, but that’s a simple type of ignorance that is merely related to a fine-tuning of natural instinct. One or two close calls with a speeding vehicle should hone the survival instinct to that particular hazard and maybe a few like it. Humans, on the other hand, need a preponderance of evidence to give the necessary weight to one issue or another to fully grasp our attention long enough to trigger a response. We have an amazing ability to imagine with our huge prefrontal cortex, and it is extremely easy to believe all manner of things that have no basis in reality – like believing that humans have nothing to do with our rapidly changing planet or that we will magically engineer some technology that will reverse all we’ve wrought.

So, I believe my mission and the mission of the team I’m now privileged to lead is to follow our passion for understanding and thinking about life on earth and shine a light on what we observe and can model to be happening in the world around us because of human actions. Our scientific objective is to characterize and understand the status, trends, and projections for biodiversity (species and ecosystems). Our business objective, from the standpoint of our jobs in a government science organization, is to communicate our findings in a clear and scientifically defensible manner that is relevant to resource managers and policy makers. Our hope as citizens of the planet is that our information will be used to make wise decisions and that fewer species will become extinct. The pragmatic reality is that our best hope is that we as a species will at least not cause the extinction of many other species in complete ignorance of our role in those events.

I’m pretty sure that, collectively, this is why we’re doing what we’re doing, and I would like to keep that at the forefront of our thinking as we go about it. I don’t know whether or not I’ll be able to actually use this exact phrase in any official capacity, but I’m going to give it a run and see how it goes. I also did some thinking about this issue of why in relation to my own parent organization and the larger agency. It’s a bigger but related “why” in that context, but I also think it is valuable to think it through and articulate why we exist. Sinek may be a bit repetitive in his book, but I’m pretty sure he’s onto some important things I need to spend more time with.