We doubt that many have heard the terms biodiversity and leadership together. We hear about sustainable leadership and climate change, yet often forget about biodiversity and its importance.
We had a chat with Tiina Onkila, associate professor and the Head of Corporate Environmental Management at Jyväskylä University. She is part of an impactful research project called Biodiful, which explores biodiversity-respectful leadership. Tiina currently works on research related to biodiversity and business, specifically biodiversity-respectful leadership in business practices. In our discussion, she highlighted many aspects of sustainable and biodiversity-respectful leadership.
Biodiversity-Respectful Leadership: refers to a type of leadership that considers how individuals, teams, and organizations can act as change agents and create respect toward biodiversity in their communities.
The Role of a Change Leader
We asked Tiina to give examples of how biodiversity-respectful leadership can be seen in practice. It turns out that change leadership is behind it all, which just happened to be the focus of her previous research in the research project CICAT2025. She explained that change leadership is seen in the actions of an individual who acts as a change agent. She also outlined some characteristics of the work of change leaders:
It can be anyone
These people are not necessarily formal leaders and often don’t assume a leadership position in their organization. In many organizations, change leaders are often found among the employees, not managers, executives, or board members.
They fight for change
The role of a change leader is not easy. They have a strong intrinsic motivation to induce change, and they put a lot of emotion and dedication into their work. Change leaders often face resistance, which requires them to be strong. Their work is extremely challenging and can be full of obstacles.
The reward is worth it
When change leaders succeed in their work and manage to change the opinions and actions of the people around them, it is incredibly rewarding. This is an empowering experience that gives change leaders confidence and motivation to continue.
It can be done in many ways
Some change leaders give speeches and visit events. Some of them create networks of people through which they gain influence. In everyday work life, they spread the message and involve different parts of their organization.
They find solutions
The world is missing sustainable solutions, and change leaders are often the ones who are tasked with creating and finding solutions within their organizations. At the same time, they need to be mindful of who supports and who resists within the organization.
“I would say that the work of a change leader is incredibly valuable to us. However, it is very strenuous to the individual change leader.”
Biodiversity-Respectful Leadership in Finnish Companies
The current research at Biodiful aims to form a framework or steps that create biodiversity-respectful leadership in Finland. Tiina’s research specifically investigates how this could be done at the company level.
During the research, they interviewed representatives from several companies that operate in the agriculture and food industry in Finland. These companies range from large to small, are located in different parts of Finland, and operate at different stages of the food supply chain. They where also at very different stages in their efforts and understanding regarding biodiversity-respectful leadership.
Among several topics, the interviewees were asked to describe how they understand and what they think about biodiversity and what it means. They also discussed what, if any, steps have been taken in their company to address biodiversity, what future plans and goals they had, and how they understood the biodiversity impact of their operations. The interviewees represented positions that are responsible for advancing sustainable practices and issues regarding biodiversity in their companies. Therefore, they were also asked to talk about the obstacles they face when trying to advocate for the necessary changes.
Although official results have not yet been released, there are some things that were highlighted in the interviews:
- Companies are more interested in advancing and considering biodiversity in their operations. There is a clear desire and interest. However, there are also differences between companies on how much they know and are willing and able to do about biodiversity.
- Companies are missing the tools. It was clear that companies did not have the necessary knowledge, understanding, and technologies to implement practices that consider and advance biodiversity. There is confusion and uncertainty about what can and should be done.
- There are change leaders. Most companies have a change leader or leaders that are willing and able to advance the required change. They also work on finding and creating the tools that are missing.
Leadership is More than a Title
Right now, we’re at a stage where we’re trying to find solutions and tools to address biodiversity. Leadership is incredibly important in advancing this change. However, the people leading this change are not the traditional appointed leaders but the people who lead and possess leadership qualities without having a formal title. They are change leaders, and their influence can be far greater than that of structural leaders in this regard.
Once the change leaders have helped create solutions, awareness, and tools to address the issue at hand, structural leaders within companies and organizations are able to step in and make decisions based on the information and tools presented. Currently, we’re still dependent on change leaders to advance the field and create understanding and solutions to advance biodiversity. This is a crucial step toward biodiversity-respectful leadership.