Famed conservationist Jeff Corwin looks back on 20 years of leadership from Defenders of Wildlife’s retiring president Rodger Schlickeisen.
It was 2003 and we were standing on the steps of the US Capitol building. The sun was shining but there was a distinct chill in the air. Beside us was an impressive assortment of environmental leaders and members of Congress. In front of us sat about 30 school children, equal parts nervous and excited. Our purpose that day? To celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.
And I remember how eloquently Rodger spoke about the Act – the bipartisan support it enjoyed, the creatures it had saved, the threats it faces – and I realized this man wasn’t just reading words on a page. He could have been working without prepared text at all, because this man was clearly moved. He felt what he was saying and he felt it deep and it was apparent to all. I have made the conservation of wildlife my life’s work and I knew right away, listening to Rodger, I had found a kindred spirit. It was the beginning of my proud association with Defenders of Wildlife and the beginning of what I hope will be a lifelong friendship with its departing leader, Rodger Schlickeisen.
Rodger isn’t just the head of one of the nation’s top environmental groups, he is the consummate hands-on, make-things-happen leader. He is as much at home in the Oval Office chastising the president as he is clad in a winter parka, releasing wolves back into Yellowstone. And you are just as likely to find him in a powerful Senator’s office as you are the wilds of Africa, tracking collared lions with Masai warriors.
And his brand of leadership has served Defenders well. When he joined the organization in 1991, it had 60,000 members. Now? The list of members and supporters tops one million. When he joined Defenders, the US Geological Service had no arm devoted to addressing the impacts of climate change on wildlife. Now they do. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the wildlife conservation programs, public and private, that were not in existence before Rodger made creating them a priority for Defenders.
When Rodger got started, environmental conservation had Democratic and Republican champions alike. And he deftly maneuvered back and forth across the aisle, exhorting champions from both sides to support key conservation programs. A decade later, when wildlife conservation became a political hot potato, Rodger read the writing on the wall, formed the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, and began taking on some of the environment’s worst enemies at the ballot box. Richard Pombo, Sarah Palin, Steve Pearce, Marilyn Musgrave, all soon found that you cannot run roughshod over the environment without hearing about it from Rodger.
Leadership, foresight, flexibility, proven accomplishment, all things we look for in a leader, all things Rodger delivered.
But as Rodger moves on from Defenders, I find myself thinking back to that fall day in 2003. And I think about another leadership quality: dedication. On that day, I saw the intense dedication he shows to the cause he so clearly believes in and the organization he cares so deeply about. And I am left to ponder how rare such devotion is in many of the leaders we see today. Truly, lots of people run organizations, but few people actually lead with such dedication. Rodger did. And we − along with the natural world − are the better for it.