Create Calm out of Chaos: Nature-Based Practices to Lead Change Efforts in Your Organization

by Nancy Patterson, Manager
BLM Campbell Creek Science Center — Anchorage, AK


“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” Eleanor Roosevelt

"Attitude is a little thing that makes a BIG difference.” Winston Churchill

As leaders in the nature center profession, one of our roles is to be a steady, calm presence for our staff, board, and community during times of chaos. But, how do you do that when the world you knew has turned upside down? Nature-based leadership practices can help you create the calm out of chaos your community desires. 

Acknowledge It: Change Happens in an Instant. Transition Takes Time. 

William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions: Making the most of change, describes that change happens in an instant but transition takes time. People have to come to terms with change, even when the change is something they have wanted. This is inherently stressful.

CCSC staff works on their strategic plan with Dr. Corky McReynoldsCCSC staff works on their strategic plan with Dr. Corky McReynoldsAs leaders, we often orchestrate changes that impact our staff, board, community, and customers. We develop strategic plans, adjust workloads, hire different employees, set visions for the future, identify and adjust mandates. While leaders have already transitioned to the idea of change, staff is often left catching up to the new reality. 

Change can also be unexpected. In these times, it is more important than ever to know how to create calm from a world that suddenly feels chaotic. 

As servant leaders of learning- and growth-oriented organizations, we set the tone and approach that creates steadiness and direction for our teams. Fortunately, nature offers us a full spectrum of leadership tools to create calm out of chaos. 

Name Your Emotions: Check Your Personal Weather Forecast

Reflection strategies, such as gallery white board walls, help identify and check in on knowledge, emotions, and arising opportunities.Reflection strategies, such as gallery white board walls, help identify and check in on knowledge, emotions, and arising opportunities.Your staff, board, and community take their emotional cues from you: the leader. You are the weather forecaster and the barometer of your organization. When the world feels chaotic and stormy, and the barometric pressure starts to fall, your team depends on you to model a calm demeanor and predict a sunny future. In other words, they want you to exhibit a predictable weather forecast (preferably 75 degrees and sunny) every day. 

Neither weather nor emotions work this way. Both vary and both are normal. You are human. You feel a full spectrum of emotions. 

Check in with yourself and ask, “What is my weather forecast today?” Do you feel sunny? Blustery? Stormy? Rainy-cloudy-sunny-rainbowy-all-in-one-go? This is valuable insight. When you can name your emotions, you can then acknowledge and constructively handle them in order to restore your inner calm. The emotions weather forecast is also a gentle way to get a read on how others around you are feeling. Together, you can calm the storm. 

Look Inward: At the Eye of the Storm, There is Calm

“When so much is swirling, it is more important than ever to go within.” Bob Schout, PowerSkills

Leadership development facilitator, Bob Schout, described the current situation as feeling like a hurricane. The world is changing, moving, and feels out of control. Yet, at the center of every hurricane is the eye of the storm. In the eye, there is calm. 

When relating to leadership skills, read eye as “I.” The eye is the inner sense of self. It relates to values and beliefs. When you look inside yourself, you can identify your inner truth, which guides direction: What am I feeling? How am I maintaining calm? What do I believe in and value?

Connecting to your inner sense of calm and connection helps you address changing circumstances that affect yourself, staff, and organization. 

Set the Tone: Create simple mantras

Mantras are powerful tools to keep people focused and motivated. Here are two mantras I use at Campbell Creek Science Center: “Define Reality. Offer Hope.” “Be Positive and Proactive.”

These mantras remind me to define the state of a situation and to offer hope for the future. They set an intention for staff: to be positive and proactive. 

Here’s an example: Just like the rest of the nature center community, the current situation impacts programming and budget. And, we believe in what we do: connecting our community to nature. We are prepared for this. We are already working through organizational change of a recently expanded mandate to provide environmental education throughout Alaska. We have an active strategic plan that lays out our vision and steps we are taking to make it come true. We can create meaningful resources that connect our community to public lands in different ways. 

Remember Your Roots: Your Organization has a Mission and Guiding Principles

Close your eyes and visualize a tree that grows in the habitat of your nature center. That species of tree is uniquely adapted to your local environment. You and your organization are too. When leaders are called to create calm, remember your roots: your organization’s mission and guiding principles. Your mission grounds you in the nature center’s purpose. Your guiding principles define your organization’s values. If true to your organization, these strong organizational roots will stabilize and steady you and your team. 

Grow a Thick Trunk: Prepare and Plan

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." — J.R.R. Tolkien

Trees grow new rings each year. Some years have immense growth between each ring, others may be barely perceptible. There are likely scars, blights, and threats that add stress and rich patterning to the trunk. Similarly, your nature center has experienced perceptible or imperceptible growth and change. It has weathered storms. 

A way to manage the storm and take advantage of change is to prepare an inspiring vision and a plan to achieve it. Short-range strategic plans lay out a tangible vision with strategies and action steps to make a vision come true in a reasonable five- to seven-year timeline. Even if your organization does not have an active strategic plan, you likely have annual work plan goals that guide accomplishments each year. Plans are key in times of strain. They create stability, direction, and focus. When managed effectively, the plans create benchmarks to strive towards and provide flexibility to take advantage of opportunities.

Reach out with your limbs! 

CCSC Staff (from left) Nancy Patterson, Maddy Stokes, Autumn Young, Maia Draper-Reich, Julie Johnson, Brian Janson, Molly Larmie, Brad Fidel, Luise Woelflein, Eric Stuart, and Cynthia Silvis on the 2020 Iditarod Ceremonial Start Day. Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management.CCSC Staff (from left) Nancy Patterson, Maddy Stokes, Autumn Young, Maia Draper-Reich, Julie Johnson, Brian Janson, Molly Larmie, Brad Fidel, Luise Woelflein, Eric Stuart, and Cynthia Silvis on the 2020 Iditarod Ceremonial Start Day. Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management.As your organization grows and strengthens, it reaches out and spreads its limbs. New relationships form. Opportunities arise. Much of this comes from the careful stability you create as leader. When your team members feel supported and safe, they will go out on a limb and try something different. They will spread their feelings of support and inspiration to your community. Your community will notice, feel welcome, and seek out your nature center. 

Chaos generates creativity, energy, and opportunities to change your nature center for the better. Out of the storm, you may find that an initiative you have tried to launch finally receives needed attention from those who have resisted. Or, your team solves challenges to serve your community in different ways. Or, you may have discovered a new way of thinking and looking at the world. You may find you have support in places you least expected it. A partnership arises out of a common interest. 

Nature is Resilient

“That is one good thing about this world there are always sure to be more springs.” — Lucy Maud Montgomery

The storm of change requires people and organizations to pivot rapidly. The change you experience now is just one storm of the many your nature center will face. You can stabilize and strengthen your team, center, and board to build organizational resilience. Creating calm out of chaos comes from the advanced work of staying grounded and present, forecasting the weather, building strong dependable teams, and growing an inspiring vision. 

Everything in nature cycles. The moon waxes and wanes. The earth shifts from season to season as it travels around the sun. Storms pass through, changing landscapes, wildlife, and people. 

Nature centers are attuned to these cycles. They invite the study of ecological succession. They establish a sense of place. They provide respite and relief in the knowledge that this, too, shall pass. The birds will return. The trees will grow. There are always sure to be more springs.

Nature is resilient, and so are we.


Nancy Patterson is a conservation social scientist. She serves as the director of the BLM Campbell Creek Science Center in Anchorage, Alaska. Check out the Center’s Nature Learning Resources for outdoor activities you can share with your community.


This article was adapted from Nancy Patterson's virtual interactive training of the same name, exclusively for ANCA members. Are you interested in becoming an ANCA member? See the benefits:

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