Knowledge@Wharton: The Wilderness Foundation’s Andrew Muir

Creating Custodians for the Future

Published July 31, 2013


Andrew Muir is executive director of the Wilderness Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting the wilderness and wildlife of South Africa and providing environmental education and training to its citizens. Founded in 1974 by South African game ranger Ian Player, the Wilderness Foundation is a sister organization of the Boulder, Colo.-based WILD Foundation, which works to promote conservation through public policy, research and field projects, and by training managers of protected areas.

Muir, who was a speaker during the 2013 Wharton Leadership Conference in June, recently spoke with Knowledge@Wharton about the Wilderness Foundation’s success integrating social programs into its mission, and how its efforts have been affected by the legacy of apartheid. He also discussed the important role that conservation has to play in Africa’s economic development.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did you become interested in this field, and how did you initially get connected with the Wilderness Foundation?

Muir: As a young boy growing up, I had a great love for the outdoors. I don’t think you can live in Africa and not be moved by the landscapes and the animals, the wildlife. That was my initial attraction. As time went on, I began to realize that perhaps this medium — the platform of wildlife and nature and our reserves and the protected areas that we have — could also be a place where we can bring [together] people from different backgrounds, different walks of life, and perhaps even make a difference to some of the social challenges that we [face] as a country, a continent and a global [community].

Knowledge@Wharton: You were mentored by Wilderness Foundation founder Ian Player for 13 years before taking on the executive director role. What were the most important things that you learned from him?

Muir: He is an extraordinary human being. I think that the important part about a mentor is to be prepared to have a deep and honest relationship with your mentee. People seem to not always bear in mind that mentorship is a two-way process; it’s not just a one-way process.

Ian was so easy about it. He was very open to baring all. I learned a lot in areas where he had made mistakes as much as I learned from his greatness. He’s one of the world leaders in conservation. He’s very much the John Muir of the modern time globally. He saved the white rhino from extinction. And yet he has this ability to be incredibly human…. That, I think, tells you a lot about the man.

Knowledge@Wharton: The need to find a mentor seems to be one of the key pieces of advice that is given to young people — or really anyone — today in terms of furthering a career or entering a particular field. What would your advice be to people in terms of finding the right mentor?

Muir: First of all … I encourage mentorship in all the programs that we have. I don’t think you can ever be too young or too old to have mentorship. I think we should see it as a huge positive and a plus. There’s absolutely no negativity in it at all.

What I would advise with finding a mentor is that you really want someone whom you respect…. It’s critical that there is a natural respect between the mentor and the mentee. Trust is earned. You don’t necessarily know … whether that trust relationship will be there, but I think if you respect the individual, it’s fairly natural that trust will follow. The chemistry that exists between the two creates the depth of the mentorship and the impact that it will have.

Mentors need to have the time. It is a commitment…. You need to have a fairly descriptive understanding between the two parties of what the process will be, what your goals are going to be and how often you’re going to meet. And then before you begin the mentorship, both parties need to agree to the commitment. It’s not a one-week process. I would encourage at least a year’s commitment by both parties. And then it can only be a positive, often life-changing, event.

Knowledge@Wharton: Getting back to the Wilderness Foundation, the mission of the organization seems to have evolved over the years — going from conservation to include initiatives related to youth and education programs and leadership programs. What has been the philosophy behind expanding the mission? And how do you see all of these things fitting together? What are the through lines that connect everything?

Muir: I just don’t believe in the modern world that you can do conservation — particularly in Africa — without taking into account all the aspects that are affecting society at the time. Environment is very much about the people … and the human impact on environmental issues. So, if you don’t embrace your leaders of the future, if you don’t create custodianship and ambassadors for the parks, for wildlife, for a rhino, for whatever it is that you’re trying to protect as a so-called game ranger, how do you expect that anyone is going to protect these natural resources in the future?

That’s very much the philosophy behind the Wilderness Foundation — that we have to be about environment and people. We need to bring in the people element in order to create the custodians and ambassadors for the future. We need to create programs that are geared to the various interests and affected parties and groups that will enable them to have the best possible understanding and impact [on] the environment that then would lead back to what they do. Whether they’re farmers, whether they’re community people living on the outside of these reserves, whether they are politicians or academics, the programs need to be geared to the target market that you are talking to. But our belief is that it really is [about] reaching out to different leadership groups: Leaders are within your communities; leaders are within your academics; leaders are within your media, your business and your political arena.

That is what we do. We create programs that reach out to all of these different target groups that will give them a personal and direct experience with nature that is relevant to where they come from or what they do, that they can then apply back to whatever business or work they are involved in. That’s how we create a future for the environment on this planet. There’s no point in me talking to the converted. That’s easy. It’s easy for me to talk in front of a bunch of greenies…. But it’s another thing trying to talk to a group that isn’t quite sure about this environmental thing and about these issues that are facing us — not just as a human species, but as a planet.

Knowledge@Wharton: How does your organization identify and strategize for the different projects you take on? How do you measure success?

Muir: That’s a good question. One always needs to, with these kinds of questions, understand the context and the working environment. Within South Africa, it’s a very dynamic, moving picture. We have huge social challenges such as HIV/AIDS. So, obviously, the first template with planning is that we develop programs around the current issues facing the country because that’s where you’re going to get traction, and that’s where you’re going to get the support, the partnership, the funding and hopefully, where people will then take these programs seriously because they can be fairly easily mainstreamed. That means that your planning process has to be fairly dynamic, because these issues are evolving the whole time, and yet be fairly generic as well, because obviously we’re talking to different target markets and groups [about] these various issues.

If we take HIV/AIDS as an example, AIDS affects everything. From a conservation perspective, 3% of our workforce in conservation areas in our country die each year due to AIDS. So, you can imagine if it takes five years to train a ranger, in one year we could lose as a country a substantial portion of that workforce in terms of the training and investment made in it. Never mind the social impact and the devastation that this causes on the ground, in the communities and where those people work.

Clearly, any impact we can have to reduce the number of people being affected with AIDS, any impact we can have in reducing the number of people who die and any impact that we can have in making the communities far more aware of all these processes coming in only make conservation better off. It also gives them a perspective that we care, because we do: We don’t just care about the wildlife; we don’t just care about our natural resources, but we also care about all living things. And these are the messages that we try and give.

Within the strategic planning, it’s really a holistic approach, and it’s really about developing programs that have a meaningful impact on the ground. There is no point developing a program that looks great at a university or great in a book or in a paper. We have to test it. And we need to benchmark it against the realities of the situations that we’re dealing with.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can you recall a time when an initiative didn’t work well or wasn’t working out well? What did you learn from that? Or how did you pivot and restructure it to be more effective?

Muir: I remember back in 1995, our country was just moving into democracy. We had just had our elections. We’d just had the [new] government in power. But one of the challenges that we had was that, believe it or not, 92% of the population of the country at that time had never been to a park, a reserve or into a natural area. Now, that’s very hard to believe when you’re talking about a country like South Africa that is endowed with natural beauty. But that was one of the legacies of apartheid. There was a piece of legislation that prevented black South Africans from experiencing large parts of the country. So we immediately had this legacy issue to deal with.

One of the programs that we started was an initiative that would take young people up into the mountains … and into these natural areas, to almost create black hiking clubs to get people safely in and out of these natural areas. That was the idea. I had two challenges. First of all, to … find a way to get the funding for these kinds of programs. And then the second challenge was how to do it. The mistake I made was that when we designed the program, we thought, “Well, I’ll just find a whole lot of environmental education offices and they will take these young people to the mountain.” Where I made the mistake was that I was dealing still with the legacy of apartheid. A lot of these black youth did not want to go with white men or white women, who were the trained environmental education officers. I then had to change the whole thinking and planning around the program.

The solution that we found is we created a volunteer youth leadership program where we trained youth leaders from the townships to be the guides. We actually gave them guide training. We taught them how to guide. We made the program their program, and they then guided tens of thousands of youth over the years up Table Mountain, in this instance. It’s a program that still operates, still works, but is led by black youth volunteers for black youth from the townships, [which creates] a very strong peer mentorship — you can just imagine that the teaching and the impact are so powerful because the youth can identify with the teachers and the medium. So, there’s an example of a problem and hopefully a solution which has worked.

Knowledge@Wharton: How have issues related to apartheid and the way that they have impacted various programs that you do evolved over the years?

Muir: I think it’s related to the people being able to see the program for what it is, or see the impact that you’re trying to give for what it is, see the genuineness of what it is that you’re trying to do, and then buying into that. To use an analogy, in America, it’s quite obvious that [in the case of] the Civil War — though it was a long, long, long time ago — there is still a residual [impact]. In the case of apartheid, that residual impact will be around for generations and generations to come, and rightly so. And we must never forget what happened — never, ever….

But at the same time, we need to develop programs that people can see … are genuine, where they can see their impact, [where] they can be part of them. It’s when you hide things, or when you try and create programs without communicating what it is that you’re trying to achieve, that some of the legacies of the past come in. “Why are you hiding this? Why are you not telling us the whole thing? Why are you keeping this or keeping that [secret]?” So, it’s just being transparent in what you do. People see that and they accept that.

I think also in the South African story, there are now millions and millions of young South Africans who we call “the born frees,” including my two children. They were born in an era where there was no apartheid. They were born past 1994. And millions — I think about six million of them — will have the opportunity to now vote for the first time, the first vote of the first population group … that can vote in a time when they weren’t born in apartheid. I think that’s going to have a very powerful [impact] on the future. So, we are talking to more educated people who are more aware. I think it’s really about transparency, about being open and about insuring that they buy into the process.

Knowledge@Wharton: Africa as a continent and South Africa, certainly, as a country are undergoing a period of dramatic growth and economic development. What types of opportunities do you feel that presents — both for the region and for the Wilderness Foundation? What are the challenges related to that?

Muir: With every opportunity, of course, there are the challenges. I think the opportunities are immense. The opportunity in oil and gas exploration — I think some of the greatest gas and oil fields in the last decade have been found in and around Africa. The mineral and natural resource opportunity is huge. The high tech and mobile communications are industries that are growing…. Those are all the positives. I think Africa has had an average economic growth of 5% in the last 10 years. Those are all very impressive numbers.

The problem is that we still have very high levels of educational challenges throughout Africa. We still have high levels of poverty and unemployment. We still have issues with natural resources exploration. We need to make sure that the policies and the laws and the rule of law are adhered to in terms of environmental legislation and insuring that exploration happens in as sustainable a way as one can have. I think we must not make the mistakes that, if I may say, countries like China have made, where they have huge environmental and ecological issues that they’re only now beginning to address. And we must not, as Africa, make that same mistake, where we go so fast in our economic growth that we forget to do what is right by the environment at the same time as we find the economic opportunities for employment and growth.

The role of the Wilderness Foundation as an Africa-wide NGO is really to be that voice of reason, to help to guide the governments, to guide companies and corporates and to build up a core of people who have that environmental understanding and who can help to apply that as we keep going through this era of tremendous growth and opportunity for Africa. We must remember that climate change and global warming are probably going to affect Africa [among] the worst of all the continents. And so, that also needs to be borne in mind as we’re going through this huge period of growth.

The role of civil society is critical in the future democratic process of Africa as a whole and also in terms of the future of Africa as a positive turnaround story. We need civil society to be strong in all those areas of human rights, of poverty alleviation, of environmental concern, of a sustainable practice that needs to come into the picture more and more. It’s through international pressure, hopefully, that that will happen.

Knowledge@Wharton: Getting back to leadership questions, what has been your toughest leadership challenge, and how have you solved it?

Muir: I think you are a leader because you’re there to deal with the tough issues. The easy stuff tends to get handled by other people. You get the tough questions and the challenges. I think a large portion of leadership is dealing with the people and human resource-related issues, particularly in NGOs where we don’t have the luxury of having dedicated HR directors and support. The chief executive often plays a large role within the non-governmental field in those kinds of issues.

But also, you deal with a lot of the risk. You deal with a lot of the financial pressures and the opportunities. I guess the toughest decisions I’ve had to take as a CEO are to see the landscape of our country changing, realize that social and environmental issues cannot be separated, realize that historically, I’ve inherited a conservation organization, not a social organization, but [also] realize that to have a future for this organization, I need to embed strong social philosophy and programs in the organization and then convince everyone around me that this is the right thing to do. And then, lead the way in implementing it.

Knowledge@Wharton: What would your advice be to somebody who wants to enter this field?

Muir: It’s a wonderful field to enter because really what you are entering is a part of what I think is the noblest cause that you can be working for. And that is for a holistic approach to our planet Earth — to really insure that within all the challenges that our society and that businesses have going forward, [there is] a voice and advocacy and a strong proactive approach to environmental, social and the interface between the two. It’s exciting to be part of that and to really be an ambassador for that. But one needs to be holistic. One needs to be open. One can’t be closed. One has to be able to communicate and be able to embrace and take on the chin things that perhaps you don’t like and you don’t like to hear. But you’ve got to think of the greater good.

We are at a period in our history where we’re under great threat, and the threat that we’re under is of our own making. We are one of 13 million odd species that make up the earth and yet, in the past 150 years, the impact that we’ve had on those other 13 million species is such that within the next 40 years, 20% of them could be extinct.

But the question we need to ask is: If that does happen — and there’s a strong likelihood that it is going to happen — what does that mean for us? What does it mean when those species that we rely on in ways that we can’t even quantify now … no longer exist? Because that is bio-diversity, that is our life support system. So, when a fifth of that life support system no longer exists, what does that mean for us? I would like to see that as a positive challenge for people entering this field — to find ways to get people to understand and start doing something about it now.