No person is an island

Hugo Tagholm leads the national marine conservation and campaigning charity Surfers Against Sewage. He is part of the Edinburgh University Ocean Leaders programme and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science by Exeter University for his services to the marine environment.

Words & photographs by Hugo Tagholm


As the Ocean Decade begins, in what must surely be a new age of environmentalism, society is beginning to recognise the importance of the complex ecosystems and the role they play in providing the very foundations on which thriving and healthy communities exist.

Multifaceted, established ecosystems have helped deliver the stability, climatic conditions, global systems, nutrients and resources for humans to prosper and proliferate on Planet Ocean. Without the complexity, without the extreme variety of specialist organisms, without the almost magical interdependencies of life, we would never have arrived where we are today. We have to be grateful for the specialists. In nature there is never one leader, there are only specialists, each the most equipped, experienced and resourced to carry out a vital function for their place in the mind- bogglingly beautiful spectacle of life.

Whilst it is understandable that we talk of leadership in society, particularly when we have so many big global moments to tackle environmental issues – the Ocean Decade, COP15, COP26, the G7 Summit and many others – the most important point for us to reflect on is niches within leadership. We must encourage all people to come forward with their specialism at a time when the world needs society to unite in the face of the converging ocean, climate, biodiversity and environmental crises, and what these mean for all human life.

I feel fortunate to have been selected as part of the first cohort of the Edinburgh Ocean Leaders programme, which brings together diverse voices and specialisms from around the globe. What I recognise most is how different we all are. We need more of this.

I’ve often heard it said that leaders should surround themselves with brilliant people – the experts, the advisers, the scientists, the specialists and whoever else. This is something we should all do in our lives – create networks, groups and contacts that can help us navigate the myriad issues, projects, professional and personal challenges we face.

Leadership is a two-way process and we all rely on the leadership of others around us.

High-level, international moments often seem to promote a monoculture of leadership thinking which might, directly and indirectly, discourage people from thinking about their own leadership role and expertise, wherever that fits into the jigsaw puzzle of life on Earth. There is no overall leader in nature, just specialists, fulfilling a role that is vital to both their own and others existence.

In my day job running the marine conservation and campaigning charity Surfers Against Sewage, I rely on specialist leadership around me every day. From the team running the database, campaigns or fundraising, to the scientists we work with around the world and the Regional Reps who are expert leaders for their own stretch of coastline. The more diverse this network becomes, the more I listen to and engage with these specialist leaders, the better the impact we can have and the stronger the solutions we can help deliver on the ocean issues we work on.

Leadership is about recognising both the strengths and limitations of ourselves, when we can help others and where we need help.

In this decade of environmentalism, it’s crucial that we reflect on emerging, diverse and different leadership, and encourage a new wave of thinking, particularly amongst young people. After all, current ‘leadership thinking’ hasn’t solved the converging environmental, societal and equality crises that we face.

The most successful and healthy ecosystems are ones where specialism is leadership, and the interdependencies of specialisms create a truly circular system which delivers continuous benefits and positive services for all. Whilst we live in a global society, we must reconsider and elevate the role of local leadership, specialisms and knowledge as we look to protect, restore and revive large swathes of our land and sea.

No individual leader can make this happen. Only a complex ecosystem of specialists with shared goal. Encouraging and supporting leadership at every level will be critical to our success in this challenge. We must support, value and listen to new and different voices and create a more inclusive and equitable approach to protecting the natural foundations we all rely on. We must find new ways of thinking, listening and understanding, and help create the space for new narratives, opinions and solutions to take hold. Solutions that we might not even believe possible today will come to light if we follow new pathways and listen to voices that might have been previously marginalised.

No person is an island. In society, just as in nature, nothing exists alone.

We may well be entering the most exciting decade of human existence, where innovation, environmentalism, disruptive thinking and technology, and inclusivity truly combine to deliver the world we all need.

Leaders exist everywhere, in everyone.

Issue Nineteen
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This feature appears in ISSUE 19: Dawn days of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Nineteen
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_princess
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_princess

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