James Pinsky: A great leader gets people to do the greatest things

James Pinsky


Saving the world is hard. But it’s possible.

I know this because one of my mentors convinced me it is.

That mentor? Michael Foreman, the director for the Office of Environmental Education at Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation. His office increases environmental literacy in Virginia by enhancing communication among stakeholders, coordinating and leveraging educational resources, and providing opportunities for professional development.

I met Michael, who by the way is the only Duke Blue Devil I know worth talking to, a few years ago on my first day as a student at the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute, a professional development program for leaders confronted with Virginia’s most pressing natural resource issues who seek new skills in conflict resolution and collaborative problem solving.

Smart, direct and always full of lofty but achievable expectations for himself and others, Mike led many before me and since me from seed to sapling in the conservation forest from his conservation education leadership role in Richmond. I know for me, his impact was direct – helping me learn to focus, to pause, think and finally to act with compassion balanced with zeal toward the conservation movement. Don’t tell Mike, but a lot of the lessons I learned from him about conservation leadership have spilled over into my personal life as well.

Mike, along with his dedicated staff, has a well-earned reputation statewide as one of the leading experts in conservation teaching, inspiration and sustainability of the Commonwealth’s environmental education initiatives, which is why I think many of us in the Virginia conservation world often look south and east first for conservation education leadership regardless of the fact we are a pupil or a peer.

At least, we did.

Unfortunately, a Virginia budget shortfall has led to the decision to close the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Office of Environmental Education. Mike’s initial email to his colleagues statewide made no mention or anger, disgust or disappointment. No, like any true leader he paused, collected his thoughts and then charged all of his peers, mentors, and students to do precisely what he taught us to do: lead.

It was Ronald Reagan who said, “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”

And, it is these greatest things I know I can do because Michael Foreman is my mentor.

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.