The Disruptor

As founding executive director of the Smithsonian’s Conservation Commons, Ruth Anna Stolk is on a mission to unite the institution’s unparalleled scientific and cultural resources around the cause of sustaining a biodiverse planet. To kick off this ambitious goal, Ruth co-led the first Smithsonian Earth Optimism Summit in 2017, a gathering of 240 global change activators who shared conservation success stories with 1500 participants, and engaged nearly 4 million people online in spreading ideas that work. While events of this size can take up to two years to plan, Ruth and a small dedicated team pulled it off in just four months (I was lucky enough to be on that team!).

“I have a high tolerance for risk and can sleep with uncertainty,” says Ruth. “I push the envelope all the time, and am a do or die kind of person.”

Disruptor and change agent are other words Ruth use to describe her leadership style. Throw in a dollop of creative vision and you have Ruth’s recipe for transforming the way people think and the way things are done. Her leadership style was shaped by her upbringing: She hails from a ‘long line of creative eccentrics’ and grew up in a loving family who encouraged her to make the most of her creative gifts, including a flair for painting bold watercolors. Throughout her career, Ruth benefited from the support of strong mentors and a boss who ‘has her back,’ while also absorbing lessons about what not to do if you want to be an effective leader: “When leaders isolate themselves and use gatekeepers, it’s very myopic; they only hurt themselves and the organization.”

When it comes to inspiring others, Ruth says she strives to be inclusive, to look for the genius in people, and to give her team a lot of leeway to stretch. What advice does she have for up and coming leaders? “Find your own way. You don’t have to wait for others to give you an opportunity or permission,” says Ruth. “Push from wherever you are, if you see a niche, fill it, and always be open and creative. Don’t take crap but take to heart that you have things to learn.”

 

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