Be adventurous with your leadership training

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Organizations spend billions of dollars each year on leadership development. Yet research has shown that many of these programs don’t seem to work – they don’t help individuals develop the types of dynamic, collaborative leadership skills needed for today’s job.

In our research, teaching, and guidance on leadership development, we have drawn inspiration from success in one particular form: wilderness adventure expeditions, where people develop and refine their leadership while they and their families. team take on the interpersonal and physical challenges of trekking through the wilderness. By forcing people to work collaboratively, develop new skills, and take control of their decisions and results, the austere environment can help expose key facets of leadership and team interaction that could otherwise be overlooked in “normal” environments.

In our own experience leading these type of expeditions including a leadership development expedition course for MBA students (a 10 day course in either sea kayaking off the coast of Belize or in hiking in the mountains of Norway), we have found that they effectively accomplish many of the goals of modern leadership development. These expeditions help participants develop their ability to tackle complex challenges, make strategic decisions in ambiguous situations, collaborate and learn with their team – precisely the attributes desired in modern organizational leaders. They also help build adaptability and resilience.

While outdoor expeditions and adventure leadership activities are used in a variety of organizations (including at NASA for training and building confidence in astronaut teams), of course we recognize that they require a lot of time, resources, travel and physical capacity, which may not be the case. accessible to all managers and companies. Still, we believe there are at least four characteristics of these expeditions that can be adapted and applied to enhance many other types of leadership training and development programs:

Complex and unknown experience. A wilderness expedition naturally places people in unfamiliar environments that require them to adopt new skills and new ways of interacting in order to be successful. Arriving on a remote island with no cell reception and receiving a tent, stove and kayak paddle is not a normal weekday routine for most people. This forces them to adopt new modes of action and opens the door to new habits and styles of work.

This novelty opens up opportunities for people to progress in new ways and reveal untapped skills and attitudes that can strengthen their leadership. Even for seasoned adventurers, the ambiguity inherent in an expedition (eg, dealing with weather and other unpredictable conditions) forces people to go above and beyond when working with their team.

Unfortunately, we see many opposing trends in the more traditional and “inner” leadership development efforts. For example, a traditional leadership training course may include a lecture on general leadership ideas, combined with feedback or coaching on what the individual is doing right or wrong in their current role. Although informative, these structures miss an opportunity to expand beyond what the person already knows how to do and develop leadership for new environments. Merely focusing on general principles or reflecting on past behavior does not provide the same opportunity to unleash new untapped potential or to learn to react in the types of unfamiliar and ambiguous contexts that a person might be faced with. the future.

Likewise, we often see team leadership “retreats” that place people in an environment similar to their daily work (eg, a boardroom). As a result, relatively little new knowledge or development occurs, as people simply fall back on their well-learned habits and interaction patterns. An expedition naturally forces everyone to adapt to a new situation, but indoor development efforts could take advantage of this principle by moving to a new setting where existing hierarchies are less relevant (e.g., even something as simple as an “escape room” exercise). A new experience forces people to shake up their habits and reveals pockets of knowledge, insight and potential that might have been hidden.

Targeted preparation. Very few people would show up on a wilderness expedition without doing a good job at home – preparing themselves physically, logistically, and mentally for the challenge ahead – and setting goals. Second, truly embarking on the expedition requires a high degree of intentionality and focus, forcing people to disconnect (literally and figuratively) from their daily work environment. This preparation and intentionality allows them to engage more thoughtfully in their experience and to draw potentially unexpected insights into leadership and behavior, both their own and that of others.

For example, we have a lot of women and men in our expedition courses who are military veterans – people you would expect would be comfortable leading a team in a remote and austere environment, and so might by default take the lead. Yet with the opportunity to be determined and reflect on the development goals they have for the expedition, these students often seek to use it as an opportunity to step back and learn from the leadership of others in order to better understand how to make the transition from their military leadership to the corporate world.

The benefits of preparation and development goal setting are certainly not limited to an expedition setting, but a remote environment often encourages this preparation in ways that more traditional leadership development efforts do. not. Too often, leadership development programs are seen as unwanted burdens on the schedule, with any preparation left to the last minute. It’s also common for people to stay connected during training classes, respond to emails, or connect with colleagues at the expense of fully engaging in their own development. And as part of a team, retreats and “off-sites” can quickly turn into complaint forums or focus on technical process improvement discussions, rather than the development goals of individuals.

Continuous and multisource feedback. During our expedition courses, students receive a great deal of feedback on their leadership and performance. The work of an expedition itself provides excellent feedback – the team ends up where they intended to be on the map (or not), the tent stays dry (or not), and everyone people leave camp on time the next morning (or a dinner in the dark awaits you). We also host nightly team debriefing meetings, and dedicated peer feedback partners provide each person with effective thoughts, observations and advice throughout the journey.

This ongoing practice of feedback typically creates a team standard of open discussion and honest assessments of how people view an individual’s leadership positively and negatively. These ongoing interactions also engender a sense of vulnerability and trust in the group which builds the camaraderie and trust that endures long after the expedition is over. Indeed, we have observed that our part-time MBA students continue to use their expedition mates as virtual ‘sounding boards’ and sources of feedback as they return to their daily professional lives, despite being in the process of being in business. different organizations or in different parts. from the country.

Again, the benefits of continuous and thoughtful feedback are not unique to the shipping context, but it goes without saying that a lot of feedback in organizations is given too little, too late, and too late. that much of it is not effective. Leadership development interventions also tend to feature sporadic instances of weekly or monthly feedback, or aggregate feedback (as in a 360-degree assessment) that describes a leader’s behavior in broad outlines, far removed from the moment. and where the behavior occurred and could be addressed.

Repeated challenges. Wilderness leadership development also benefits from the repetitive nature of outdoor living. Each day of the expedition is different in some ways, but revolves around a set of similar challenges (e.g. packing, sailing, breaking camp, etc.). When combined with the continuous feedback described above, this repetition gives individuals the opportunity to implement new behaviors after receiving feedback, coming full circle in their development by immediately testing new actions and measuring performance. difference in result.

For example, we see students struggling with a particular task (for example, working together to cook a meal on camping stoves), debriefing challenges that have emerged, and then waking up the next day with an immediate opportunity to implement. lessons learned when it’s time to cook again. While improvement is not always immediate, the repeated opportunities make it easier for students to learn and help them integrate different behaviors in real time during class, which can help them reintegrate those behaviors into their work.

In our mind, this element of repetition is one of the major missed opportunities in many leadership development programs or team building efforts. Leadership programs or team building exercises are too often ‘one-off’, and even when properly debriefed and reflected on, the intention is simply to take the lessons home and implement them on their own. workplace. But without the ability to put this knowledge into practice immediately, positive changes or desired behaviors may be lost.

This gap allows new information to be forgotten, ideas to fade, intention to falter, and confusion to set in. Knowing that the transfer of leadership behavior from training places to the workplace (where systems and structures are still doing things) is already an uphill battle, give individuals immediate practice in applying new behaviors or strategies can help them apply these ideas more effectively.

Unmediated by technology, competing demands or office politics, the wilderness distills many facets of leadership and team interaction to their essence. Yet we believe these four elements of outdoor expeditions can shed light on how leadership and team development efforts can be enhanced in any setting. While we always take every opportunity to move leadership development out of the office and into nature, recognizing and applying these principles to all leadership development activities could be a way to bring the outdoors indoors and out. to expand leadership growth in organizations.


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