Navy Helicopter Pilot Turned Climate Change Advocate

Making big changes takes leadership from the top, and being an example to those around you that you can make a difference. Whether it is a scientist researching the effects of climate change, or a CEO building a renewable energy business, leadership comes in all forms. Knight Campbell, Navy Helicopter Pilot and founder of Cairn Leadership Strategies, shares his vision for turning a leader into a climate change advocate.

Let’s get to know Knight Campbell

After graduating from the Naval Academy in 2006, Knight excelled in flight school, learning to pay attention to detail, manage fear, and control risk with his team. He earned the top graduate spot. Knight earned his Wings of Gold and led Sailors on two deployments to the Pacific conducting theater security and counter piracy operations. 

Looking for a change of pace, he went back to the Naval Academy and earned master’s degrees in leadership from UMD and the Naval War College. More importantly he had the honor of leading over 700 Midshipmen. From tackling 24-hour crucible events alongside his people to teaching advanced leadership theory, he left the tour with a burning passion for helping people reach their potential as leaders.

After one more deployment on an Aircraft Carrier, Knight decided to pursue leadership development full time. Having a goal to climb the high point in every state- only 10 left now- Knight found deep satisfaction in climbing mountains. Observing the limitations of teaching leadership in a classroom, he knew outdoor activities would be a perfect place for leaders to thrive. While working on a Management PhD at George Washington University, he started teaching rock climbing, hiking, and mountain biking for REI Outdoor School. Knight then did a 30-day expedition in Alaska with NOLS to certify as a mountaineering instructor. Seeing the need for quality, hands-on leadership training, he switched gears to complete an Executive Leadership Coaching Certificate at Georgetown University. Knight is passionate about combining disparate ideas to get gestalt moments, creating inspiring adventures where leaders forge community and deep growth, and spending time with his wife and daughter in the wilderness.

Knight, Thank you for being here. Tell us a little bit more about you and your background: 

After a decade of flying helicopters off of destroyers and cruisers for the Navy, I decided to combine my two greatest passions – outdoor adventure and leadership. I cut my teeth instructing 30 day expeditions for NOLS and then started Cairn Leadership Strategies with a mission to get more corporate leaders outside.!

Over the years I have studied leadership at the Master’s and PhD level, but nothing substitutes for experience on deployments leading my Sailors through tough situations. I’m a proud father of a 3 year old explorer and my wife is an incredible woman who started as a Marine and is now an Orthopedic Surgeon. Yea, I’m just trying to keep up with the two of them!

What is a fun fact about you?

My wife and I are trying to climb the high point of every state. We have 11 to go! Kansas was shockingly hard… we got stuck in a torrential downpour and inched our way driving over 50 miles of slick clay roads to get to Sunflower Peak. Never assume something will be easy, and never assume something is too hard to try!

Why do you think climate change and sustainability is such an important topic today? 

Climate change is radically altering the environment we use to teach leadership. I walk on glaciers and see how much they recede from year to year and I cancel trips due to wildfires. More importantly, sustainability calls for a respectful and humble approach to how we do business. If business leaders are not earnestly looking at what our impact will be in 20-30 years, all our success now will only lead to misery for our children and grandchildren.

The Navajo Nation has it right when they consider the impact of a decision seven generations down the line, but in a young country like the U.S. it’s hard to think that far ahead. Even though we are not great at thinking so strategically, its more holistic, better business to do so. That’s one of the reasons we are so passionate about connecting business leaders to the outdoors. When we have a relationship with the wilderness, we will consider our impact more seriously!

What do you envision your industry looking like 10 years from now?

In many ways Cairn Leadership is at the forefront of this movement to get business professionals outside. I hope this industry is booming in 10 years. We welcome likeminded people and even help them set up their own companies in the industry, because we truly believe the more time leaders spend outside the better. Leaders who go outside often are happier, healthier, more creative and more connected to their people- that’s science! Who doesn’t want a world like that!?

What can the average person do to become a climate change advocate? 

To make a difference people have to learn! Dig deeper and then dig some more… not talking just about holes for pooping outside either! We teach Leave No Trace on all our adventures. At first it felt like a list of seven rules, but when I dig into the ecology of a place, truly understand the impact several steps down the line, it’s just fascinating. For example, if we take an antler out of the wilderness, rodents that counted on that for a mineral supply over the winter will die. The lower rodent population impacts other species that need rodents for food. It doesn’t stop there though, ecology is really just systems thinking outside. We can apply that deep curiosity about how things are connected everywhere as leaders and human beings. It’s important to be non-judgmental though. What can individuals do? Learn about the environment and then do what you can. For example, I just learned that the recycling that I don’t wash out well usually just gets sorted back into the trash! Now I rinse.

Knight, thank you for being a Climate Change Advocate and leading the way for a cleaner future.

If you are interested in connecting with Knight and Cairn Leadership Strategies, schedule a call directly with Knight here.

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Jack Smith
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