Responsible leadership for a sustainable future

Responsible leadership for a sustainable future

Lessons from Beatrix Potter

I am lucky enough to work from Impact’s HQ in the English Lake District and even luckier that from my desk I can glance up from my computer screen and look out over Windermere - the largest lake in the UK – and beyond. The hill (or rather fell, as we Northerners like to call it) that I look towards is called Claife Heights – it is a wooded fell that is definitely not one of the well known Lakeland greats but home to a fact that I have shared with anyone who will listen for many years now. Apparently, Claife Heights has every kind of tree that is native to the United Kingdom growing there, as planted by Beatrix Potter! 

Now even if you have never been told this fact (which I doubt you have) or heard of Claife Heights, I imagine you will have heard of Beatrix Potter and her very famous characters like Peter Rabbit, Miss Tiggy Winkle, Jemima Puddleduck and Squirrel Nutkin. You may even know that the 150th Anniversary of her birth is being celebrated this year. You can’t escape it living here! The houses she lived in are being inundated with visitors and the locations in her books are being sought out.  Also celebratory coins are in circulation, Royal Mail issued special stamps and the National Trust and V&A are remembering her with a host of exhibitions and activities.

There is a less well-known side to Beatrix Potter, a side that has led me to believe she was an extraordinary woman in so many more ways than the one we may think of at first.

She was born into a wealthy Victorian family in London in 1866 and home schooled by a series of governesses, whilst her brother, Bertram was sent to boarding school.  This was the Victorian way, it was not deemed necessary for women to be educated to the same degree as men. She therefore grew up in relative isolation with only her imagination and a host of pets to entertain her.

She was however an eager student with a talent for drawing and painting. Long holidays spent first in Scotland and then The Lake District (including Wray Castle nestled beneath Claife Heights) allowed her the freedom to explore and develop a keen interest in the natural world. She practised the art of observation by drawing and it was this study of natural history that she devoted most of her energy, eventually writing a report that was presented to a meeting of the prestigious Linnean Society – Beatrix was not able to present this herself because at that time women could not attend society meetings.

Despite her scholarly recognition she was still a dutiful young Victorian woman and lived at home with her parents. Her love of drawing led her to write picture letters to friends’ children and it was one of these that subsequently turned into the book The Tale of Peter Rabbit. After initially not being able to persuade any commercial publishers to take on the book she actually produced a small number of copies herself. When Fredrick Warne saw the book in its finished form he published the story in 1902. You could say that the rest is history but behind the success of some of the best loved children’s books is the story of a woman who was pioneering the notion of responsible leadership.

Beatrix was becoming quite the businesswoman. She was very hands on and insisted on working directly with the publishers, this close working relationship with Frederick’s brother Norman Warne meant she spent a lot of time with a man whom she grew to care for very deeply. They became unofficially engaged, despite the disapproval from her parents and she decided to go ahead and subsequently with the profits from her books, they bought a remote farm in the Lake District. Unfortunately Norman died from Leukaemia a month later - before they were even able to live together. Beatrix continued with the purchase of the farm and so began a stage in her life that was to leave a lasting legacy on the English countryside.  

Following the death of Norman Warne, Beatrix continued to write and publish a number of stories that within the decade were selling in their millions. She split her time between London and The Lake District where she threw herself into Lakeland life. This led to a very keen interest in the preservation of the countryside and as she made more money through her book sales and the relatively new territory of merchandise she bought more properties and farmland.

By the age of 47 she was still single and caring for her parents but through her numerous recent property and land acquisitions she had met a partner from the local solicitors firm she was using – William Heelis. In spite of her determination and business success, her parents continued to interfere in their daughter’s affairs and said William was still beneath Beatrix, but once again she decided to go against their wishes and married him in 1913. Thereafter, she went by the name Mrs Heelis - This suited her very private nature and even her neighbours did not know her as the published author she was.

For the years that followed Beatrix not only continued to write and manage a diverse business, she also became deeply involved in the community. She served on committees to improve rural living, founded a nursing trust to improve local health care, farmed her land and bred her beloved Herdwick sheep (becoming one of the most respected breeders in the region).  Due to her enthusiasm for land conservation William and Beatrix became early benefactors of the National Trust, in 1930 Beatrix actually became land agent for the Trust, managing many of their farms as well as her own.

As Beatrix was now a very wealthy woman she was fortunate enough to be able to use her money to acquire property in order to conserve the area and support the community that she had grown to love. However the decisions she made and actions she took came about because she saw a responsibility to do good things, the things that meant the most to her.

She was a strong woman who rose above her Victorian roots and acted from her heart. After her death in 1943 she bequeathed 15 farms and over 4,000 acres to the National Trust – a gift that protected and conserved the unique Lake District countryside.

At Impact responsible leadership is at the heart of what we do. We have been working hard at being a responsible organisation for over 36 years and we bring that learning into the work with our clients – helping them on their own journey towards responsible leadership.

What better place to embark on your own journey of responsible leadership than at Impact’s HQ on the shore of Windermere? You too can marvel at the countryside that looks the way it does largely through the responsible business practice of Beatrix Potter, but I’m afraid you will have to wait until the spring now if you want to see every single British tree in all its glory!

Hannah Irwin is a Content Marketer at Impact UK.