A really wonderful article from...
John N. Gans, the Executive Director of National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)
The lessons about leadership learned in the crucible of the backcountry environment — unpredictable, challenging, and dynamic — map to today's business environment. The wilderness is an unparalleled venue for highlighting team and individual strengths and learning to compensate for shortcomings. Executives from Google and Timbuk2; students from Wharton and the Kellogg School and even most NASA astronauts have evolved through such training. Think of it as an MBA from nature.
Outdoor training activities, even those as straightforward as lightweight backpacking, enable students to actually practice different leadership and communication models so that they can learn about their own leadership style and its impact on outcomes in a group. Understanding their go-to "signature" style allows them to then develop situational leadership skills that can adjust to current events and group needs.
A 2008 University of Utah study focused on the long-term benefits of wilderness education. The study, "Long Term Impacts Attributed to Participation in Adventure Education..." (link PDF) found that, beyond outdoor and survival skills, program graduates gained critical leadership skills including: effective handling of difficult circumstances, the ability to work as a member of a team, strategic planning, and how to communicate positively with diverse types of people.
In the 16 years I've led the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and in the more than 30 years I've been active in the outdoors, I've seen the idea of "expedition leadership" take hold in organizations. In large part, that's because companies are moving away from the traditional hierarchical, command-and-control structures and towards looser networks and flatter org charts.
The concept of expedition leadership as espoused by outdoor training programs effectively turns the command-and-control model on its head. Expedition leaders encourage active followers. All of the members of the team are empowered to make decisions and through their efforts everyone has a role to play bringing clarity to the larger group vision. Middle managers, the business equivalent of an expedition member, generally have the most information about the decisions that need to be made. Giving them permission to make the decision, and see it through, leads to cohesion and rewards, collaboration rather than competition.
As part of outdoor training programs, students are asked to step back and create functional teams that work across traditional departmental lines and outside of a strict hierarchical structure. Setting goals, making a plan, managing resources (food, fuel, etc.), working as a team, and remaining flexible are crucial to a successful backcountry expedition and the expedition of life. The model focuses on collaborative teamwork to achieve goals. Risk management becomes intuitive given the inherent risks and hazards of remote and wild areas.
Outdoor training "was a life changing time for me," said Nantucket Nectars and Plum TV founder, Tom Scott. "The stakes are very real. The chain is as strong as its weakest link. The goal is to arrive at the next place as one. All links intact. I came back a different person."
Even if a team-wide outdoor training isn't in the cards for your group, getting away from the boardroom and into a more natural setting will allow your team to step out of the standard office roles. We do a yearly three day executive team retreat at a nearby nature center where meetings in a rustic setting are combined with "walk and talks" addressing specific issues. Each day a group hike or bike ride is included for exercise and relaxation, but meals are when the real team-building takes place. Preparing a meal together truly illuminates each person's leadership styles and tendencies. Competence, teamwork, and communication are all on display.
Extended wilderness expeditions develop one's understanding of leadership, teamwork, ethics and judgment. Connecting with the wild outdoors in an intense way fosters the kind of self-reliance, judgment, respect, and sense of responsibility that can help leaders thrive in today's shifting organizational landscape.