The changing nature of conservation district leadership and management

In my lifetime, I have found it very interesting to observe how organizations are led and managed. Whether you think of it as leadership or management, moving an organization forward and keeping it on track are connected activities that are different in every one of our conservation districts.

Is it leadership or management?

Although the new Building Better Learning Community that will debut next month will immediately tackle these ideas of leadership and management, let me get a jump on that by introducing to you the Army Leadership Doctrine:

Leadership is the activity of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="" target="_blank">ADP 6-22 ARMY LEADERSHIP AND THE PROFESSION (PDF)</a></span>

To me, leadership is a large circle that contains a smaller circle called management. For example, consider how Wikipedia’s definition of management intersects with the Army Leadership Doctrine:

Management (or managing) is the administration of an organization, whether it is a business, a non-profit organization, or a government body. Management includes the activities of setting the strategy of an organization and coordinating the efforts of its employees (or of volunteers) to accomplish its objectives through the application of available resources, such as financial, natural, technological, and human resources.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="" target="_blank">Management (Wikipedia)</a></span>

Influencing people. Coordinating the efforts of its employees. Accomplish the mission. Accomplish its objectives. Hopefully, you can see that these two concepts – leadership and management – don’t occupy completely separate spaces in our toolbox. Purpose and method both intersect.

The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.<span class="su-quote-cite">Warren G. Bennis</span>

After having filled both roles, I can’t conceive of effective leadership without an element of management in it, or of effective management without any leadership activities. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the two terms interchangeably.

Seven management styles

How many management styles are there? Probably as many as the number of managers/leaders on our planet! However, for simplicity, let’s simplify this by identifying seven of the most common management styles. The descriptions below are paraphrased from The Top 7 Management Styles: Which Ones Are Most Effective? with some of my personal observations thrown in. For more information, I recommend reviewing the source article.

The seven management styles are:

  1. Authoritarian
  2. Visionary
  3. Transactional
  4. Servant leadership
  5. Pacesetting
  6. Democratic
  7. Laissez Faire

1 – Authoritarian management style

Clear direction and control are the hallmarks of the authoritarian management style. These managers assert strong authority, have total decision-making power, and expect unquestioned obedience. Clearly defined roles are required, along with a strict organizational hierarchy and strict reporting structures.

Managers using this style must be deeply involved in all of the day-to-day tasks of an organization.

Have you worked in such an environment? I have. I had jobs in janitorial services and in warehousing, and both were very authoritarian. You learned quickly to do exactly what was directed: no more, no less. Initiative and creativity were unwelcome and often resulted in some form of punishment.

2 – Visionary management style

If a manager is considered to be inspirational, charismatic, strategic, transformational, or authoritative, that person is probably using a visionary management style. These folks focus on communicating the overall vision of the organization to their team. They generally don’t involve themselves in the day-to-day details of the organization. Rather, they are all about motivating employees and aligning efforts to keep everyone moving in the same direction. They put trust in team members to figure out how to get there.

I’ve had at least one employer who preferred a visionary management style. After being briefed on the primary goals to be achieved, line staff were pretty much left alone to figure out how to achieve those goals.

3 – Transactional management style

The transactional management style is based on the idea that you can successfully manage and motivate employees by providing rewards such as incentives, bonuses, and stock options. Transactional managers may use piece-work pay to incentivize employees to produce more. Periodic bonuses may be provided based on employee productivity.

I have been an employer that used a transactional style. When you consider the nearly universal nature of employee performance reviews that can result in a performance-based wage increase, you realize that many of us have a transactional management component in our workplaces. In my experience, this has not worked well in professional settings where productivity goals are harder to set and to measure compared to working on a manufacturing line.

4 – Servant leadership style

Also called coaching, training, or mentoring, the servant leadership management style focuses on supporting your employees. Managers who use this style spend much of their time supporting their team. They view themselves as filling the role of an advisor or coach rather than someone who enforces rules. Effective servant leaders need to know the jobs of their employees and be experienced in coaching others.

I see this style in some of our conservation districts. I’ve employed it from time to time, but usually for specific employees who need some help improving their performance.

5 – Pacesetting management style

Do you like to lead from the front of the pack, providing instructions and setting a demanding work pace? You may be a pacesetting manager. Pacesetting involves setting challenging standards in an effort to drive your team to achieve new bests and hit bigger goals. Pacesetting managers need to set a pace that is difficult (but not impossible) for your team to meet.

I have not had to work for a pacesetter although I’ve seen this used for specific projects that have an explicit timeline associated with them.

6 – Democratic management style

If you use a democratic management style, you retain final decision-making authority before making decisions, you seek out the thoughts, ideas, and recommendations of your team. This style is also called consultative, consensus, participative, collaborative, or affiliative. It is based on the idea that two heads are better than one and that everyone deserves to have a say, no matter what their position or title.

If your workplace encourages idea sharing and participation in regular events or meetings, it may have a democratic management component. Such managers encourage their team to share ideas, suggestions, and potential solutions to help each other succeed.

Among conservation district managers, this style is not uncommon. Some conservation district boards also enjoy this style; some do not.

7 – Laissez-faire management style

Laissez-faire is a French term that directly translates to “let do” in English. Laissez-faire managers let employees do what they want, with little or no management interference. Laissez-faire managers promote self-directed teams and typically only get involved if something goes wrong or the team requests it. In a smoothly operating team, a laissez-faire manager will only appear present at the beginning and the end of the work process.

I have seen this management style a few times. It seems to work with smoothly running teams. Usually, these are people who have worked together a long time. They know and accept each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and work together to get the best out of the team as a whole.

What is your style?

Rarely do I see a manager or leader who uses only one management style. One observation I will make is that when I do see such a manager, they tend to not be very successful unless everyone in their organization chooses to go along with that style. In this scenario, everyone includes the board members and employees.

Sometimes a board’s style conflicts with the manager’s style

Sometimes employees don’t resonate with the preferred style of their manager or leader. Sometimes fellow board members have trouble with the styles preferred by their peers or the style used by their district manager.

I have seen, and continue to see, this kind of tension throughout our conservation district community. We don’t talk about the management style that we prefer in our organization. One result of this is hiring people who don’t fit well with our own preferences, creating additional tension that can be damaging to the entire organization.

Where this kind of tension really comes to a head, though, is when the conservation district board prefers a style that their manager is not using. For example, some boards prefer an authoritarian style, but if they have a laissez-faire manager, the board will never feel like work is progressing as fast or as well as it could.

As people change so does the culture of the organization

Employees come and go. Board members come and go. Partners come and go. With each change, new preferences and styles are introduced. Over time, organizational culture can shift as the people who make up the organization change.

Culture shifts may occur so slowly that it appears that nothing is changing. Sometimes organizational culture shifts so rapidly that it throws the entire organization into a state of confusion until preferences and styles settle into place as the new normal.

Talking about the management styles your organization prefers can provide important context for everyone involved. If you want a coaching atmosphere, you better not bring in an authoritarian manager! Talking about preferred styles before making changes will usually result in changes that are less stressful and more productive.

Who is the keeper of your organization’s culture?

As we consider the idea that organizational culture changes, it is worth dwelling on the question of who is the steward of your organization’s culture.

I propose that your steward is most likely the longest-tenured people in your organization. In some conservation districts, board member turnover is so low that they provide critical cultural continuity to the district. In other districts, staff has seen their board change completely several times, so maintaining the style and culture of the district falls to staff. Occasionally, there has been a rapid turnover of board and staff, and in those cases, cultural continuity may be provided by a key partner.

What if your culture could be better?

Having a long-standing way of doing things doesn’t mean that’s the best way for your organization to succeed. This is where investing some time to understand who is stewarding your culture through changes and what management/leadership styles you prefer can pay huge dividends.

You may find that, upon reflection, everything is working just about the way it should. Our conservation districts have had several decades to settle into their own specific styles and rhythms, so your district may already be in a comfortable and productive place. Without talking about it, though, how can you make sure you are recruiting the best new board members and employees to continue your march forward?

You may also find that there is a disconnect between what the board prefers and how the staff is actually being managed. Identifying this is the first step toward aligning preferences so that service to customers is improved.

Be aware of big changes

One of the lessons I’ve learned is that when something significant changes, our people don’t always adapt quickly. We humans tend to resist big changes! I’ve seen this when a conservation district suddenly gets much more funding. This can stress staff capacity and upset the equilibrium of district operations.

Sometimes a new board member becomes a change agent. While those desired changes may be helpful and needed, change brings tension and stress. Organizational change can be demanding and stressful. People accept change and adapt their style of work at their own pace, and when that pace is suddenly accelerated or disrupted, it can upset district operations.

Sometimes new employees become the source of changes. Often, it is hiring a new manager/leader into your conservation district that drives these changes.

It’s important to watch for the impact of big changes. Be observant. Be reflective. Be prepared.

The changing nature of leadership and management in conservation districts

With all of that as context, I propose that how conservation districts are being led and managed is changing.

Over the last 30 years, I’ve observed a change from a preponderance of authoritarian styles toward participatory styles. Before, we saw strict hierarchies in organizational charts with very limited participation and responsibility for some or all district staff. Visionary, servant, and democratic management styles were rarely seen.

Today we see a different landscape in how leadership and management is expressed in conservation districts. We do see visionary management styles. We see servant leaders. We see democratic methods.

In short, I think we are in the midst of a transition from directive styles to participatory forms of leadership and management.

What is participatory management?

Participatory management is the practice of empowering members of a group, such as employees of a company or citizens of a community, to participate in organizational decision making. It is used as an alternative to traditional vertical management structures, which has shown to be less effective as participants are growing less interested in their leader’s expectations due to a lack of recognition of the participant’s effort or opinion.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="" target="_blank">Participatory management (Wikipedia)</a></span>

Stated more succinctly:

Participatory management is a management philosophy and approach in which employees at all levels of an organization are engaged in planning and decision-making to optimize organizational effectiveness.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="" target="_blank">Participatory Management: An overview and case study of high involvement cultures at work</a></span>

Five styles of participatory management

According to Participatory Management Styles, there are five basic participatory management styles:

  1. Information management
  2. Mentoring and training management
  3. Recognition management
  4. Teaching management
  5. Shared decision-making management

I’m going to refer to these as approaches to avoid confusion with the styles presented earlier. As you read summaries of these five approaches, you may recognize that they intersect with some of the seven top management styles presented earlier.

1 – Information Management

The information management approach is where information is shared readily with employees. This may include financial projections, budgets, and plans. This approach provides transparency and allows for employee comment, input, and suggestions.

In my experience, this style is common in conservation districts.

2 – Mentoring and Training Management

When your organization provides ongoing training, skill development, professional enrichment, and mentoring to employees, you are using a mentoring and training management approach. Employees may take on new responsibilities or may cross-train under the supervision of a mentor. Employees are encouraged to share what they know to support a resilient, well-rounded workforce that utilizes each person’s best skills.

Cross-training is less common in conservation districts because budgets are usually too tight, but it does happen.

3 – Recognition Management

Does your conservation district regularly recognize staff for their longevity, achievements, and contributions? Welcome to the recognition management approach! The reward approach is transactional in nature, designed to increase performance, motivate employees, and provide positive reinforcement for a job well done. Employees see how their contributions positively affect the conservation district.

Many conservation districts provide recognition to maintain positive morale and promote longevity and productivity.

4 – Teaching Management

With a teaching management approach, employees are guided on the fundamentals of the decision-making process. They develop insight into a particular problem, issue, or strategy. They learn how to break down an issue into solvable components. Employees continually improve their understanding of how the district operates.

If your district has a strong administrative assistant or assistant manager role, you likely use teaching management as a method to transfer knowledge.

5 – Shared Decision-Making Management

All forms of participatory management include a form of shared decision-making, but when shared decision-making becomes a major aspect of your management style, it goes even deeper. Employees may participate in focus groups, complete surveys, and generate ideas in brainstorming sessions. (Interestingly, brainstorming may not be the most effective way to generate ideas.) They may work in self-monitored groups on specific projects. The manager or supervisor usually sets the parameters within which employees work and contribute. There may also be a process to review ideas to make sure that all are carefully evaluated.

How do current conversations about equity and inclusion fit?

Community results to date

As members of our conservation district know, the National Association of Conservation Districts adopted a statement on diversity, equity, and inclusivity in 2020. That statement is downloadable as a PDF document.

Following the adoption of the statement, NACD convened a DEI Task Force. In the introduction of the Task Force’s 2021 report to the NACD Board of Directors, DEI is described as follows:

Diversity is who we are. It is a broad concept that encompasses all the differences among individuals. Diversity, therefore, is all inclusive, of all people and their thoughts, ideas, backgrounds and experiences.

Equity is how we do it. It is the guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity and advancement for all.

Inclusion is what we do. It is bringing individuals and groups into processes, activities and decision/policy making in a way that empowers and values them.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="" target="_blank">DIVERSITY, EQUITY AND INCLUSION TASK FORCE: Report to the NACD Board of Directors</a></span>

How do diversity, equity, and inclusion fit into district management styles?

One of the barriers I keep encountering when talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion is that each person views DEI through a particular lens. Their lens is created by their own life experiences. We hear people object to talking about DEI because to them it is about race or gender or age or any of a myriad of other attributes.

We are talking about DEI because of the racial issues that erupted into the national consciousness in 2020. This was new to many people but it wasn’t new to those who have been directly affected by oppression and racism. It is entirely understandable that some people view DEI as primarily having a racial basis.

I view diversity, equity, and inclusion as topics that are more general than any single attribute. They transcend all of the individual attributes I can think of. They contain all individual attributes, whether protected by law or not. DEI is about people – all people, with all of the unique and special differences that people have.

The truth is (as I see it) that we have been talking about including and recognizing people for decades. The ways that conservation districts operate as political subdivisions of state government (special purpose districts) with transparency in making board-level decisions and providing access to public records is about being inclusive of all people and their specific interests. Communicating with officials elected by the citizenry is part of RCW 89.08 Conservation Districts Law. Seeking input from the community served by the conservation district is also in RCW 89.08.

If diversity is inclusive of “all people and their thoughts, ideas, backgrounds and experiences,” then participatory management approaches directly intersect with the concept of diversity. In other words, there is room for diversity of thoughts, ideas, backgrounds, and experiences in leading and managing conservation districts.

If equity is “the guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity and advancement for all,” once again we see that participatory management approaches that contain information sharing, mentoring, education, recognition, and shared decision making contain elements of equity.

If inclusion is “bringing individuals and groups into processes, activities and decision/policy making in a way that empowers and values them,” there are clear connections with the five participatory management approaches.


We are not in the same place as we were right after the Dust Bowl years and after World War II. In particular, the management approaches that emerged during reconstruction after WWII tended to favor directive, authoritarian styles. Those styles seemed to continue through the 1950s and 1960s. Sometime in the late 1960s or the 1970s, we began to see more and more leadership/management writing that presented ways of leading, reaching, teaching, and guiding people that were different than what we had been experiencing. These include the participatory management approaches discussed above.

One of the authors of new leadership and management ideas was Peter Drucker:

Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="" target="_blank">Peter Drucker</a></span>

What changes first: the organization’s culture or the organization’s leadership/management? I think it varies from place to place, but in hindsight, they seem to become aligned relatively quickly. Change the culture and leadership and management change. Change leadership or management and the culture changes. If culture and leadership/management don’t align, tensions in the workplace get worse, not better. Tense, difficult workplaces are the exception in our conservation district universe, not the rule.

If your leadership or management style is directive/authoritarian, you may find it increasingly difficult to attract new people to your board and staff. The world is changing around us, moving toward more participatory approaches in all things. Embracing diverse points of view, including everyone, and treating people fairly are part of this movement toward participatory leadership and management.


If you’d like to dive into these ideas on leadership and management more deeply, do attend the Building Better series and become part of that learning community. The first webinar is on August 11.

You might also appreciate reading other ideas and perspectives:

Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director