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Soil Nourishes All Life

A Nature Based Leadership Essay 

Soil Nourishes All Life; What Quality is Your Life’s Soil?

©2016 (SJones)

Steve Jones; 3.06.16

 Ron Dodson, longtime friend, colleague, wildlife biologist, and sustainability author, scholar, and speaker, asked me recently via email, “From a leadership perspective (The Nature of Leadership) can you make a case Hands-holding-soilfor understanding the importance of soil and its position in regard to sustainability as a good starting point for fostering leadership development?” Ron asks some tough questions! I will attempt an answer.

From Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, soil is:

“The upper layer of earth that may be dug or plowed and in which plants grow…” and alternatively “the superficial unconsolidated and usually weathered part of the mantle of a planet and especially of the earth.”

The online Soil Science Glossary (Soil Science Society of America) offers that soil is:

“The unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the Earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants… The unconsolidated mineral or organic matter on the surface of the Earth that has been subjected to and shows effects of… climate (including water and temperature effects) … and macro- and microorganisms, conditioned by relief [the shape of the land], acting on parent material over a period of time.”

My doctoral dissertation is titled, “Evaluation of Soil-Site Relationships for Allegheny Hardwoods.” I studied the influence of soil and related topographic features on the forest. Since accepting the PhD in 1987, I have occasionally thought of myself as a soil scientist. Today (and for the past twenty years), I am a university administrator who used to be a soil scientist, yet the old discipline still stirs within, reminding me that all life is rooted on the Earth, and in the earth (soil) that characterizes, enables, and limits life and terrestrial ecosystems globally and locally.

Soil is such a great metaphor for individuals and human enterprises. It is a living substrate, an artifact of bedrock, climate, living organisms, topography, and time. A substrate of mineral particles, organic matter, moisture, and air, teeming with roots, fungi, and microbes diverse and abundant. The living components shape the soil; concomitantly, the soil is architect of the living community within it. The relationship is one of complementarity, reciprocity, integration, and absolute interdependence.

The soil is shelter and sustenance. It is both anchorage (for vascular plants) and feeding trough for whatever multi-faceted living community it supports. The plant cover in turn protects the soil from the incessant power of raindrop impact, even as the soil absorbs and retains the deluge that would otherwise erode and wash it ocean-bound.  The deal between soil inhabitants (whether microbes or Sequoias) is ironclad, shaped by the ages. We are all soil-dependent, whether that is obvious to us or not.

We ignore this soil-dependence at our peril. Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) spoke of the demise of the once magnificent society on Easter Island, “The metaphor is so obvious. Easter Island isolated in the Pacific Ocean — once the island got into trouble, there was no way they could get Easter Islandfree. There was no other people from whom they could get help. In the same way that we on Planet Earth, if we ruin our own [world], we won't be able to get help.” Soil is the fundamental medium of the “world” to which Diamond refers.

This One Earth (and its precious soil) is our Easter Island, our mote of dust in the vast darkness of space. No one from without will come to rescue us from ourselves. Pope Francis implored us in his 2015 Encyclical on Caring for Our Common Home to awaken before we cross a frightening threshold.

All enterprises depend upon leaders tapping a substrate, characterized as diversely as soil, shaped by a metaphorical suite of parent material, climate, living organisms, topography, and time. The leadership soil consists of knowledge, wisdom, experience, ethics, character, motivation, ethos, attitude, environment, teamwork, service, values, spirit, emotion, inspiration, and so much more. Likewise, the quality of leadership depends on the relative proportion and abundance these and other soil constituents. Poor leadership soil yields inferior results. Rich and deep leadership soil provides firm anchorage and high productivity.  

Soil comes in nearly infinite variations. So too does leadership. I’ve spoken of the chance an oak takes when it drops an acorn and expects it to find just the right spot – courtesy of gravity, luck, squirrel, jay, or crow:

What shapes our individual and enterprise soils? And how does that nourish us? Nature based leaders need not rely upon gravity, luck, squirrel, jay, or crow. Nature based leaders create their own medium, and fashion a substrate of their choosing. I recall the mission statement we created at NC State University when we established the Shelton Leadership Center: To inspire, educate, and develop values-based leaders committed to personal integrity, professional ethics, and selfless service. The mission has not changed over the dozen plus years since then. Clearly, as I stand at today reflecting upon that mission, I see the nature based metaphor of the soil we wanted leaders to seek, prepare, and depend upon. We encouraged leaders then, and I do now, to live by bedrock ideals, embrace professional ethics, and serve selflessly. Doing so, in turn, protects and buffers that substrate from the torrents and vagaries of day to day enterprise life that might otherwise wash the leadership soil to the metaphorical sea.

So in living, learning, serving, and leading, leaders shape and are shaped by the substrate that sustains them. One element of that leadership soil must be fidelity to our individual and collective obligation to responsibly steward this One Earth, and tend the earth soil that sustain all life and every enterprise. Nature Based Leadership reminds us that our roots must find anchorage and sustenance, and that our relationship to our enterprise soil (and our earth soil) is fully one of complementarity, reciprocity, integration, and absolute interdependence.  

Again, Ron asked me, “From a leadership perspective (The Nature of Leadership) can you make a case for understanding the importance of soil and its position in regard to sustainability as a good starting point for fostering leadership development?” Sustainability, whether individual, enterprise, or humanity, relies upon our relationship with the applicable medium, whether earth soil or enterprise soil. We are one with Nature, even as we are one with our own individual and enterprise nature.

I’ll add a post-script of sorts. Human population now stands at 7.5 billion. Too many of us live empty lives, unfulfilled and only marginally purposed, from birth through final passage. We are not tending our soil. Collectively as an Earth society we are lost, wandering aimlessly and ravaging the very Nature and soil that sustain us. Nevertheless, we humans are blessed with remarkable capacities and abilities – intelligence of the mind, heart, body, spirit, and soul, our five portals. We have the metaphorical senses to look, see, feel, and act. And we must act now (with the meter at 7.5 billion), before we topple over the abyss. We will not act unless we feel deeply about the cause and its urgency. We will not feel unless we see the need -- deeply and emphatically. We will not see unless we look for the peril that escapes our societal blindness. We need to begin now to systematically remove the blinders, open eyes, inspire vision, generate deep feelings, and motivate action – action to tend our soil, of both earth and individual nature.

Ask yourself, “What quality is your life’s soil? Your enterprise soil? Are you doing your part to tend the soils that sustain you… and us?” I urge you to look for where we and you are falling short. To truly see what is at stake. To feel deeply the consequences of neglecting our obligation to the soil. To act on its behalf in service to all, and to all who will follow.                                                                                  

 About the Author: Steve’s PhD is in Natural Resources Management (1987). He practiced forestry in the southern forest products industry for a dozen years prior to pursuing his doctorate. He has since served eight universities, including three as CEO (2004-present). He is currently President, Antioch University New England (AUNE). He also chaired the Governing Board of the University of the Arctic 2005-08. Steve believes that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or inspired compellingly by nature. Steve co-created AUNE’s Nature Based Leadership Institute in 2015 ( Reach Steve at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

SustainAbility Newsletter Archive Article (random)

Increase Mileage & Save Money


Summer is upon us, and that means road trips, family vacations, and jaunts to the campground. Unfortunately, it also means higher gas prices, especially this year. Whether your motives are saving cash or saving the environment, increasing your fuel efficiency is a wise idea for all of us.

Here are some easy ways to do so:

  • Obey speed limits. Speeding can reduce your gas mileage by up to 33 percent!
  • Don’t idle. If you are stuck at a railroad crossing or drawbridge, turn your car off.
  • Don’t “jackrabbit,” or accelerate abruptly. Similarly, don’t slam on your brakes at stop lights. Anticipate changing lights and begin your slowdown sooner.
  • Empty your trunk. Excess weight decreases the miles per gallon your car gets.
  • If you are driving at highway speeds on a hot day, use your air conditioning to keep you cool. An open window or sunroof causes excess drag, which results in lower gas mileage.
  • Keep your air filters clean. A clogged air filter can significantly affect your gas mileage.
  • Regular oil changes and tune ups can also do wonders for your gas mileage.
  • Check your tires. Improperly inflated tires will cost you money in lost fuel efficiency.
  • Combine errand-running trips. This will save you both time and money.
  • Don’t drive. Whenever possible, join a buddy in a carpool, telecommute to and from work, take the bus, ride a bike, or get some exercise by walking to work.

Go to to check the fuel efficiency of your car and to find other gas-saving tips.

Fast Facts

  • 43% of people with safe places to walk within 10 minutes of home meet recommended activity levels, while just 27% of those without safe places to walk are active enough.
  • Up to 25% of cars on the road during the morning rush hour are providing school transport.
  • More children walk to school when there are sidewalks.


References and Sources used in this issue of SustainAbility Newsletter Include:

Audubon International

The International Sustainability Council

The US Environmental Protection Agency

Organic Farming Research Foundation

United States Department of Agriculture
Natural Resources Conservation Service

Natural Resources Defense Council

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A Coalition for Good - Spreading the Seeds of Sustainability

ISC-Audubon is a coalition of non-profit organizations and initiatives that include The International Sustainability Council (ISC), Audubon Lifestyles, Audubon Outdoors, Planit Green, Broadcast Audubon, and the Audubon Network for Sustainability. 

Funds generated through memberships and donations are used to provide fruit & vegetable seeds, wildflower seed mix, and wildlife feed & birdseed to urban and suburban communities around the world. These seeds are used by communities to establish fruit and vegetable gardens, bird and wildlife sanctuaries, and for the beautification of urban and suburban landscapes by creating flower and native plant gardens.

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