Preparing interdisciplinary leadership for a sustainable future


Urgent sustainability challenges require effective leadership for inter- and trans-disciplinary (ITD) institutions. Based on the diverse experiences of 20 ITD institutional leaders and specific case studies, this article distills key lessons learned from multiple pathways to building successful programs. The lessons reflect both the successes and failures our group has experienced, to suggest how to cultivate appropriate and effective leadership, and generate the resources necessary for leading ITD programs. We present two contrasting pathways toward ITD organizations: one is to establish a new organization and the other is to merge existing organizations. We illustrate how both benefit from a real-world focus, with multiple examples of trajectories of ITD organizations. Our diverse international experiences demonstrate ways to cultivate appropriate leadership qualities and skills, especially the ability to create and foster vision beyond the status quo; collaborative leadership and partnerships; shared culture; communications to multiple audiences; appropriate monitoring and evaluation; and perseverance. We identified five kinds of resources for success: (1) intellectual resources; (2) institutional policies; (3) financial resources; (4) physical infrastructure; and (5) governing boards. We provide illustrations based on our extensive experience in supporting success and learning from failure, and provide a framework that articulates the major facets of leadership in inter- and trans-disciplinary organizations: learning, supporting, sharing, and training.

Publication Type
Journal Article
Christopher G. Boone
Steward T.A. Pickett, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Kamal Bawa, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment
Iain J. Gordon
David Hart, University of Maine
Jessica Hellmann, University of Minnesota
Alison Miller, Columbia University
Mark New, University of Cape Town
Jean P. Ometto
Ken Taylor, Our Land and Water National Science Challenge
Gabriele Wendorf, Technische Universit├Ąt Berlin
Arun Agrawal, IFRI, University of Michigan
Paul Bertsch, CSIRO Land and Water
Colin Campbell, The James Hutton Institute
Paul Dodd, Office of Research, University of California, Davis
Anthony Janetos, Boston University
Hein Mallee, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature
Sustainability Science