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Experiences Outside of Institutional Training that Contribute to Outdoor Leadership Development

Jacquie Medina
Source: Doctoral Dissertation
Article Date:  January 1, 2015


            While the outdoor leadership literature recognizes and recommends experience as essential to outdoor leadership development, minimal research has been conducted that explores experience in the context of outdoor leadership development, specifically experiences outside of institutional training. Life histories of seven master outdoor leaders possessing high level competencies in outdoor leadership skills were collected and analyzed. Participant profiles were created and then analyzed for individual themes through narrative holistic-content perspective analysis. All participant profiles were then cross analyzed. Five themes emerged offering clarity to the types, settings, and dimensions of experiences outside of institutional training master outdoor leaders perceived to contribute to their professional development: (a) participating in your craft; (b) spending time in the natural environment; (c) learning to lead within positions of leadership; (d) direct, indirect, and vicarious involvement with accidents, injuries, or death; and (e) interacting with role models, mentors, and influential people.


            This study was designed to explore the concept of experience in the context of outdoor leadership development. While the outdoor leadership literature recognizes and recommends experience as essential to outdoor leadership development, minimal research has been conducted that explores experience in the context of outdoor leadership development. Historically, recognition of experience in outdoor leadership has not been grounded in theoretical frameworks and empirical research. Recommendations for experience in outdoor leadership have lacked clarity in the types, amounts, settings, and dimensions of experience necessary for outdoor leadership development. Over time, outdoor leadership development literature has come to recognize the possible contributions of alternative frameworks of research and a need to implement both qualitative and quantitative research to better understand and capture the essence of experience in outdoor leadership development.

            This study explored experiences outside of institutional training that outdoor leaders perceive as contributing to their professional development as outdoor leaders. The research question that guided this study was “What experiences outside of institutional training do outdoor leaders perceive to contribute to their professional development?”

Literature Review

            The history of outdoor leadership and outdoor leadership preparation provides a basis for understanding the complex process of outdoor leadership development and the recommended, yet uncertain, role of experience in the context of outdoor leadership development. The adult learning literature offers theoretical foundations for exploring experience and the unique contexts and settings for outdoor leadership development. Together, outdoor leadership and adult learning literature create a foundation and framework for understanding and exploring experience outside of institutional training.

Experience and Outdoor Leadership Development

          Throughout the outdoor leadership literature, experience has emerged as an important component of outdoor leadership preparation and development (Cain & McAvoy, 1990; Miles, 1987; Petzoldt, 1984). Miles describes the role of experience in the development of sound judgment as “experience allows a person to place all the knowledge and skills being acquired in context, to practice their application in real situations” (p. 508). March (1987a) believes that experience is one of many facets involved in the long-term process of leadership development. “The wilderness is the domain of the experiential learner and that only by personal experience over a long period of time can a person begin to acquire the level of judgment to operate safely in a leadership capacity” (March, 1987b, p. 490).

          The importance of field experiences in outdoor leadership preparation has been identified in the outdoor leadership curriculum research (Priest, 1988; Raiola, 1997). “Any effective leadership program must consist of a combination of classroom and field experiences since it is impossible to develop adequate outdoor decision making abilities in a classroom setting alone” (McAvoy, 1978, p. 4). Highly skilled outdoor leaders are “professionals who have knowledge and skills gained from many disciplines and a variety of life experiences” (Raiola & Sugerman, 1999, p. 241). Today, experience is still considered critical to the overall development of an outdoor leader (Garvey & Gass, 1999; Medina, 2001).

Experience Outside of Institutional Training

          Outdoor leadership preparation programs have primarily been housed in formal and non-formal settings such as colleges and universities, private educational organizations, and community-based learning organizations (Ewert, 1989; McAvoy, 1978). While formal and non-formal schooling and training is significant, Merriam and Caffarella (1999) point out that it is important that educators of adults recognize that there are many and varied ways adults learn informally (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 25). Informal and self-directed learning contexts have been described as unique from formal and non-formal learning settings in that they are often initiated and executed by the learner and occur within the learner’s natural settings (Candy, 1991; Merriam & Caffarella, 1999).

          The integration of informal and self-directed learning opportunities into formal and non-formal settings has been demonstrated in outdoor leadership preparation programs through the integration of case studies, apprenticeships, field experiences, practicums, and internships. Informal and self-directed learning experiences outside of formal and non-formal learning settings can also contribute to the development of adult learners (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). The “independent pursuit of learning in natural settings” described by Merriam and Caffarella can occur in a variety of settings such as home, work, or recreational pursuits. Adults are sometimes not even aware that they are learning during informal and self-directed learning experiences.

For the purposes of this study, the following definitions of institutional training and outside of institutional training will apply:

Institutional training. Formal and non-formal settings which include colleges and universities, private educational organizations, community-based learning organizations, and scouting and other outdoor programs.

Outside of institutional training. Informal learning settings that do not include formal and non-formal learning settings.

Experience and Narrative Research

           Narrative inquiry has been described as “a way of understanding experience” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 20) and exploring experiences through the stories people tell (Merriam, 1998). Schwandt (2001) defines narrative inquiry as an “interdisciplinary study of activities involved in generating and analyzing stories of life experiences and reporting that kind of research” (p. 171). Narratives have encompassed “first person accounts of experiences,” “stories of life experience,” and “ways humans experience the world” (Clandinin & Connelly; Connelly & Clandinin, 1990; Merriam).

           Outdoor leadership research has historically implemented narrative research and interviews as a method of data collection, rather than the object of study. While many books telling tales of adventurous travel and lived experiences in the outdoors can be found in present day bookstores, documented narrative research in outdoor leadership is limited (Koesler, 1994; Laux, 1988). As the fields of outdoor education and adventure programming grow, recommendations for qualitative research explorations including narrative research have emerged (Caldwell, 2000; Ewert et al., 2000; Miles & Priest, 1999).


            A qualitative life history narrative methodology was chosen as the procedure to explore the research question. Narrative inquiry provided “a way of understanding experience” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 20), and the life history narrative method presented “a commentary of the individual’s very personal view of his own experience as he understands it” (Watson, 1976, p. 97). The research methods for this study included participant selection, interview settings, data collection, data analysis techniques, and data management.

Participant Selection

            The participants in this study were current outdoor leaders in the fields of outdoor education and adventure programming who were perceived by their peers as master outdoor leaders. Participants were identified by their peers as possessing high level competencies in outdoor leadership skills, knowledge, and practice, possessing an extensive amount of experience as professional outdoor leaders, and recognized as influential outdoor leaders. For this study, selection criteria for identifying master outdoor leaders was developed from previous studies in outdoor leadership, conversations with outdoor professionals, outdoor education and related literature, and by determining who could best answer the research questions (Bilodeau, 1987; Bisson, 1997; Buell, 1983; Priest & Gass, 1997; www.aee.org; www.aore.org; www.nrpa.org;www.weainfo.org).

            Seven master outdoor leaders were selected through snowball sampling and sought based on the criteria of sufficiency, saturation, and information redundancy (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Seidman, 1998). Nine informants working in the field of outdoor education and adventure programming were identified and requested to recommend participant master outdoor leaders who met the list of selection criteria. Informants were chosen based on their current involvement in the field of outdoor education or related fields, knowledge of outdoor leadership, and present or past involvement with outdoor leaders in the state of Colorado.

            Participants for this study met the selection criteria and represented outdoor leaders of various ages and both genders. Ethnicity was not identified. Age did not necessarily reflect the life stage of the participant, but was more representative of the selection criteria (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). In order to complete face-to-face, multiple in-depth interviews, participants selected for this study lived or worked in the state of Colorado. Job titles, responsibilities, places of employment, and training backgrounds of participants varied. The selection criteria were intended to identify participants who were master outdoor leaders regardless of their current employment or position.

            Each of the participants was formally educated possessing one or more college degrees. In addition, all participants had advanced training in their area of expertise; and at some point in their career, the majority of participants were involved in training or employment with National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Outward Bound, or the Wilderness Education Association (WEA). Participants had an extensive amount of experience as professional outdoor leaders ranging from 12 to 35 years of involvement in the outdoor field.

Data Collection

            Each outdoor leader participated in three semi-structured, person-to-person, in-depth interviews for no less than 90 minutes per interview for a total 33 hours of interview data. Seidman (1998) proposed a three-interview series that “allows the interviewer and participant to plumb the experience and place it in context” (p. 11). The primary focus of each interview included (a) a focused life history, (b) details of the participant’s experiences, and (c) reflection on the meaning of the participant’s experiences. Interviews took place at participants’ homes, work settings, restaurants, and at a conference. The participants selected interview locations that the participants felt were convenient, private, familiar, safe, and/or comfortable to share their story (Seidman, 1998).

            Five of the seven participants shared photographs during the second or third interview. Photographs were used through photo elicitation, images produced and interpreted by research participants (Collier & Collier, 1986; Harper, 1994). The reflexive use of photographs in data collection helped to develop the point of view of the participant and to define the participant’s meaning of the photograph (Harper, 1988). In addition, one participant provided four electronic journal entries and another participant provided extensive personal experience documents. A researcher journal, interview notes, and all audio-taped interviews were transcribed and used as data.

Data Analysis

            Two methods of data analysis were implemented: 1) craft participant profiles and personal narratives in the participants’ own words, and 2) holistic-content perspective analysis which involved reading a participant’s “entire story and focusing on the content” (Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach, & Zilber, 1998, p. 15). Creating participant profiles involved a sequential process of combining the interview text for each participant and crafting individual participant stories in their own words. This process involved reading the transcripts and marking all the passages of interest (Seidman, 1998), combining all the passages of interest to create a new version of the three-interview transcript, reading the new version multiple times, and keeping the most compelling passages. From these passages, a narrative “in the words of the participant” (p. 103) was crafted. Two additional levels of analysis were then implemented.

            The participant profiles were first analyzed for individual themes (see Table 1). Narrative holistic content perspective analysis was implemented and consisted of numerous readings of the individual profiles until a pattern or “form of foci” emerged, writing my “initial and global impressions” of the participant’s story (p. 62), deciding on particular forms of foci or patterns to follow from beginning to end, and highlighting the various points of focus and patterns throughout the text, reading “separately and repeatedly for each one” (Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach, & Zilber, 1998, p. 63). The profiles were then cross analyzed which involved analyzing the individual themes across all participants’ data. Trustworthiness of the data was established by meeting the criteria of credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability.


            Six overarching themes emerged from cross analysis: (a) engaging in outdoor experiences as a child; (b) participating in your craft; (c) spending time in the natural environment; (d) learning to lead within positions of leadership; (e) direct, indirect, and vicarious involvement with accidents, injuries, or death; and (f) interacting with role models, mentors, and influential people (see Table 2).

Table 1

Individual Theme Matrix








Outdoor experiences as a child

Outdoor experiences as a child

Outdoor experiences as a child

Outdoor experiences as a child


Outdoor experiences as a child

Outdoor experiences as a child

Being an employee







Being in positions of leadership

Being in positions of leadership

Being in positions of leadership

Being in positions of leadership

Being in positions of leadership

Being in positions of leadership

Being in positions of leadership

Dealing with accidents, injuries, and the death of a student

Indirect experience with death

Death of a student and friends in the out-of-doors

Dealing with the death of a participant


Lessons from accidents, injuries, and death

Dealing with accidents, injuries, and death



Close calls





Working with people







Living life







Influential people

Influential people

Influential people

Role models and influential people

Role models and influential people

Influential people

Influential people


Family influences







Participation in outdoor programs

Participation in outdoor programs






Participation in your craft

Participation in your craft

Participation in your craft

Participation in your craft




Time in the natural environment

Time in the natural environment

Time in the natural environment


Time in the natural environment

Time in the natural environment





Starting and running a business




Table 2

Overarching Themes from Cross Analysis


No.                    Themes


  1        Engaging in outdoor experiences as a child

  2        Participating in your craft

  3        Spending time in the natural environment

  4        Learning to lead within positions of leadership

  5        Direct, indirect, and vicarious involvement with accidents, injuries, or death

  6        Interacting with role models, mentors, and influential people



Engaging in Outdoor Experiences as a Child

            When participants reflected on their earliest memories of experiences in the out-of-doors, most remembered informal explorations such as collecting frogs, watching a sunset, playing in a river, or hiking through the woods or the sage brush. Some participants went on family camping trips while some other participants explored their property and the surrounding areas. All but one of the participants shared stories of their earliest outdoor experiences as a child. Four participants were involved in scouting in the earlier years of their lives.

            Some of the participants developed fundamental relationships with the natural environment at an early age. Janet talked about “having really deep feelings” about nature at an early age, but not really understanding them. Kate explained how she spent most of her childhood trying to be outside, and how she lived from one summer camp experience to the next. Kurt shared that he “spent a lot of time outside to escape” and that it was healing for him when he was outside. Kurt believed that these times spent out-of doors impacted his career choice and dedication to environmental preservation.

Participating in Your Craft

            Many stories shared by participants centered on their involvement in outdoor activities and experiences alone or with friends that occurred outside of work or training. Sarah, Kurt, Janet, and Rocky talked about climbing as an influential outdoor activity in their development. For a time, Sarah, Janet, and Rocky each made climbing a priority in their lives. They spent the majority of their time outside of work and school developing their climbing skills. Janet went so far as living in a particular area for six summers to be more accessible to climbing areas. Kurt stated that he “spent years literally hitchhiking and just mountaineering and traveling” (Kurt, — 16).

            It is within these stories that participants talked about close calls and near misses (situations that could result in an accident or injury but did not) that awakened them to the seriousness of outdoor leadership. Sarah realized her efforts to train for Denali were insufficient. She was young and inexperienced, and physically and emotionally not prepared to be on such a large mountain. Rocky explained how his “roots were extraordinarily informal and probably even dangerous” (Rocky, — 6). While climbing with friends, he explored new routes, tried new equipment and techniques, and matured as a climber as he experienced close calls and mistakes.

            Participants explained that during personal trips and outdoor experiences they developed and honed their technical skills. Through experimentation and multiple attempts they were able to know their bodies and to push their physical, mental, and emotional limits. Rocky used personal experiences, trips, and role playing to explore new techniques. Janet shared that her climbing experiences helped her to know her body. It was through Mel’s personal trips that he learned backcountry knowledge and technical skills from friends as well as the consequences of poor equipment and decision making.

            Most participants articulated the importance of pushing the edge on your own personal time and not with your students or participants.

You don’t want to be pushing the edges of your ability with a group of beginners that you haven’t met before. . . . When you’re with your peers or your friends you’re kind of testing your own technical and physical and emotional comfort levels and ability to look at a goal or an objective and to accomplish that. (Janet, — 30)

Gray concurred, “my belief is that when you’re leading a trip you should always be a couple levels below your own edge. That’s not the time for you to test your own mental” (Gray, — 37).

            Kurt emphasized the importance of practicing your craft in order to make the experience and theory your own then you can speak from a position of authority. Kurt explained, “I don’t think you actually can be an outdoor leader without doing a significant amount on your own. . . . You might have a great theory, but unless you put it in practice then it’s really no good for anything” (Kurt, — 30-31). Kurt clarified the importance of having experiences outside of institutional training. He stated, “If all you know is institution and from a training side, you better darn well make it your own true experience” (Kurt, — 42).

            While many of the participants’ stories of personal trips and experiences focused on climbing and mountaineering, they also referred to experiences involving paddling, backpacking, and winter backcountry travel. As trainers and facilitators, Mel and Kate discussed their life experiences outside of work that contributed to their development learning lessons about facilitating and leading.

Spending Time in the Natural Environment

            Woven within the participants’ beliefs in practicing their craft was the value they placed on spending time in the natural environment. Participants concurred that in order to develop technical skills, gain knowledge of the out-of-doors, and make decisions regarding weather, one must spend time in the natural environment. While living in the out-of-doors and moving through the landscape, the participants experienced first hand the power and lessons of the natural environment. Through these experiences, the participants shared how they developed essential outdoor leadership skills, knowledge, and a heightened level of self-awareness.

            The power of the natural environment significantly impacted many of the participants. Lightening, floods, storms, rock fall, extreme temperatures, wind, and rain resulted in immediate consequences that taught the participants valuable lessons in decision making and judgment and fostered self-awareness. Gray explained how having been hypothermic made him more cautious about being cold and how being aware of that process improved his leadership abilities. Kate referred to being more conservative and forthright in her philosophy on safety as a result of having friends struck by lightening and her experience with natural disasters. Kate exclaimed, “weather leads–I follow” (Kate, — 53).

            Janet embraced the fact “that the natural environment teaches flexibility and the fact that there is something out there that is way bigger than us” (Janet, — 49). Janet supported the role time in the natural environment played in safety and decision making. She stated, “factoring a lot of things, I think teaches people to work collaboratively with something as opposed to conquer it. You can’t really conquer nature” (Janet, — 52). In addition, Kurt shared “that it is liberating to be able to be comfortable in things that would drive most people inside” (Kurt, — 47).

            Sarah indicated that the amount of time spent in the out-of-doors was critical and that “there’s a HUGE difference between extended trips and shorter trips” (Sarah, — 14). Sarah explained that on shorter trips “you’re not really making real decisions in high terrain, in exposed terrain for long periods of time” (Sarah, — 14). She stressed that extended time in the out-of-doors forces an individual to deal with taking care of themselves and to develop “long term thinking and care” (Sarah, — 14) To travel for extended periods of time in the out-of-doors, an individual must eat properly, stay injury free, dress appropriately, and address the little things that can become big issues on long trips.

            Janet believed that extended time in the natural environment could be life changing for people. She explained “to have such a profound experience with nature . . . to sleep on the ground, to keep traveling through the landscape for that amount of time, and to slow down. That’s just a tremendous experience for humans” (Janet, — 15). Janet believed that if you sit long enough in nature it will teach you powerful lessons and help you find your way. While neither Rocky nor Mel discussed the importance of time spent in the outdoors, both articulated experiences within and a respect for the natural environment.

            Sarah, Kurt, Janet, Gray, and Kate all discussed the significant relationship that they have with the natural environment. They described a feeling of connectedness with the natural world. Gray explained how the natural environment is a part of his life, how it is humbling, and how it gives him a sense of himself. Kurt and Janet also described the natural world as a “healing” place. Kurt’s time out-of-doors observing nature taught him life lessons and a respect for the natural world. Janet believed that the natural environment was the core to her being an outdoor educator.

Learning to Lead within Positions of Leadership

            Many stories within the profiles involved experiences when participants were in positions of leadership. Through their stories, participants reflected on early experiences leading groups, the consequences of their actions and decisions, and the impact of applying their new knowledge in future experiences. All the participants expressed how they learned to lead by leading others, by being responsible for themselves and to others, and by applying methods of trial and error.

            Kate, Mel and Rocky all developed businesses in which they held positions of leadership. They explained how difficult it was to start and develop the business skills to manage their businesses. Kate believed she was not taught how to lead, but that she just did it and figured out how to do the job while she was in the position. Rocky explained how he was over his head when he began and that through the process he came to understand how to provide the services his clients wanted and the importance of insurance and risk management. Mel has continued to run his own business, and the lessons he has learned have not only been associated with the administrative aspects of running a business, but also with how to work with people.

            Janet verbalized her belief that “you have to lead groups to learn how to lead groups” (Janet, — 28). By leading groups and making decisions that directly affected her students, Janet became profoundly aware of her “huge impact on young people’s lives and that compassion is such a big part of that” (Janet, — 22). Janet realized that she is a catalyst and that she had to be mindful of herself, her words, her actions, and their source. She stated, “I have to get my ego out of the way with teams so I can let the teams really shine” (Janet, — 23) Kate emphasized that it is critical to create opportunities for people to lead. Not only is it valuable to be in a position of leadership, but the opportunity to lead must exist or be created or leadership cannot occur.

            Kurt and Sarah both shared how they grew up in outdoor leadership and were “given leadership having very little experience” (Kurt, — 41). Sarah explained how working for Outward Bound humanized her. She had to learn to meet the students where they were. Initially, as a leader she found that she was pushing her own opinions and values on students. She lacked interpersonal skills. Sarah found that her weaknesses showed up as she worked with groups in the out-of-doors, and in order to grow as leader she had to deal with her “stuff.” This process of development occurred by leading groups and getting the “mileage” she needed.

            Although Kurt wanted and was given leadership immediately, he did not always know what he was doing and as a result made mistakes. Kurt described some of the challenges of his early leadership experiences. “I know I wasn’t a very good outdoor leader when I was 19. Horrible . . . horrible mistakes. . . . My only training was pretty much anything goes” (Kurt, — 29). While in positions of leadership, Kurt started to experiment with different leadership styles and learned to become a leader by paying attention to and learning from his experiences. Kurt shared, “There’s been thousands of small experiences…each one contributes if you pay attention to them – your ethic and the way you teach” (Kurt, — 43).
            All of the participants, in some way, repeated Kurt’s experience with making mistakes, errors, and experiencing close calls. Rocky described how his poor decisions on early outdoor trips affected the group dynamics on the trip, and how it took him years to identify the root of his mistakes. As a result, he struggled with group dynamics on many outdoor trips until he became better skilled and obtained sufficient knowledge to manage it. Mel shared that “the mistakes and the tragedies and the errors are the ones that stick with you more than the things that you did automatically” (Mel, — 19).

            Throughout many of the participants’ profiles, experiential learning emerged as a major aspect of their learning to lead. Rocky referred throughout his stories to learning related to previous experiences. Gray drew from his prior experiences to effectively lead outdoor trips, and Mel emphasized his leadership development through a process of repetition and learning. The role of reflection in the learning process seemed to be essential for all participants.

            The process of decision making and reflection within positions of leadership seemed to be constant among all participants. When Rocky and his group of young boys got caught in a storm during the descent off of Block Tower, Rocky reflected on his motive for choosing that adventure. He and his co-leader came to the realization that they had chosen the adventure for themselves and subjected the young boys to it. Through reflection, Rocky realized that “it’s when I became this leader for the first time that I discovered that what applied to me as caution wasn’t even quite enough caution for a group of teenage boys” (Rocky, — 24).

Direct, Indirect, and Vicarious Involvement with

Accidents, Injuries, or Death

            All of the participants, except for one, provided detail about their experiences of direct or indirect involvement with accidents, injuries, or death. The majority of participants expressed their good fortune of not having serious injuries and accidents occur during their leadership. However, almost all of them acknowledged the reality that a serious accident, injury, or death would inevitably occur one day. Most of the participants attributed their “safety frames” of mind as contributing to their minimal involvement with accidents, injuries, and death. Participants’ lessons of learning from these experiences included increasing awareness and caution to safety situations, asking the right questions, taking on only what you can handle, understanding what others are experiencing in a similar situation, acknowledging leadership development as a continual process, and realizing that accidents, injuries and death situations can happen to anyone at anytime.

            Two participants had a participant die in their presence during a trip when they were in a position of leadership. Both were involved in efforts to rescue or revive their participants, and through reflection and evaluation found that neither was responsible for the accident. However, as a result of her involvement, Janet experienced post traumatic stress symptoms for six months. Mel was subjected to extensive documentation of his training and experience as a result of a lawsuit. Janet felt that her experience made her “more compassionate and open and understanding of other people that are going to go through those same experiences when people on their trips pass away” (Janet, — 37). Mel has continued to keep a detailed log of his professional training, certifications, and work experiences.

            Kurt and Gray referred to friends they had lost to the natural environment because they were pushing the edge or in some situations they were being “cocky.” After Kurt had a former student die in the Alaskan wilderness, he explored the cause of her death in order to understand why it happened and, if indirectly, he and his program had been responsible. His student’s death and other related teachings prompted Kurt to finally and informally study judgment. Kurt has continued to share these experiences and stories in his own teaching. Gray indicated that his experiences with student injuries and medical emergencies helped him to pay more attention and to remind him to “keep developing as an outdoor educator” (Gray, — 40). Certain things should not happen and he needed to make sure they did not happen again.

            Through their stories, all the participants communicated a respect for the serious nature of outdoor education and their responsibility and role as an outdoor leader. Many participants shared how they learned vicariously through listening to other peoples’ stories. Sarah explained, “The experience of your friends – hearing about stuff like injuries and fatalities. . . . My friends have it—I experience it through them. I learn from it” (Sarah, — 56).

Interacting with Role Models, Mentors, and Influential People

            The theme of interacting with role models, mentors, and influential people emerged throughout all of the participant’s profiles. Participants recalled camp counselors, teachers, friends, and family members who exposed them to the wonders of the natural environment and outdoor activities at a young age. All of the participants discussed in detail the first individuals who turned them on to outdoor experiences. Some of the reasons that the participants recalled these individuals and experiences were because these individuals introduced them to the out-of-doors, offered support in the participants’ efforts to lead, and provided the participants with the trust that they needed to make something happen.

            Almost all of the participants talked about the value of role models and mentors. Janet described the characteristics that a role model embodied and how she valued having “a visual” to herself. Rocky found that the student climbing club instructors and some of his climbing partners were role models and mentors for him. He could learn how to climb by watching them and through their encouragement furthered his skills and knowledge.

            The majority of Kurt’s stories involved his experiences with Paul Petzoldt. Kurt described how he learned what to do and sometimes what not to do from co-leading with Paul. In addition, by listening to Paul’s stories and experiences in the out-of-doors, Kurt transferred Paul’s learning to his own experiences. Vicarious learning, both verbal and observational, was a common thread through all of the participants’ stories.

            Through watching and listening to their peers, colleagues, and mentors, participants learned lessons of leadership that they otherwise may not have experienced directly for some time or at all. Sarah explained how direct observation of other master outdoor leaders had influenced her development.

Learning in the field, watching some pretty amazing people . . . that was the cool thing about semesters – a lot of senior staff. I could go in there and watch all these masters at their craft. Hear them talking about it and seeing it . . . getting their feedback. That was huge. (Sarah, — 55)

            In addition, listening to the stories of others has also been influential. Rocky shared that he picked up “a lot of leadership simply through vicarious experience with my friends who did a lot of it. They can tell me their stories” (Rocky, — 63). Kurt described his thoughts, “I think you hear things in the field. I saw the people that had made those mistakes and saw the aftermath . . . and realized that that must not be o.k. It was a combination of hearing it and then experiencing it” (Kurt, — 29).

            Many of the participants described how their students and participants have been some of their biggest influences. Mel explained that “participants are huge teachers . . . participants, co-workers, staff, the people around you. If you pay attention they will reflect who you are” (Mel, — 48). Many of the participants shared how they have learned something from everyone whether it was good or bad. Kurt stated, “Pretty much everyone I worked with I’ve stolen things from and incorporated their teachings as well” (Kurt, — 56).

            Kurt and Sarah spoke of the importance of feedback. Sarah stated, “People I worked with directly, day after day after day, week after week. Those are the people who I could really watch and learn from and be given a lot of good feedback from” (Sarah, — 52). Kurt believed that you have to get feedback on outdoor leadership, and you have to work with people who model good decision making and judgment. You have to get feedback on what did work and what did not work and then adopt what you want into your own leadership style.

Discussion and Implications

            Experience and learning from experience have been difficult to define because experience is unique to the individual and can include almost any activity in which the individual is engaged (Bruner, 1986; Miller, 2000). To better understand experience in the context of outdoor leadership development, this study focused on experiences outside of institutional training that the participants’ perceived to contribute to their professional development. Life histories of seven master outdoor leaders possessing high level competencies in outdoor leadership skills were collected and analyzed resulting in five themes: (a) participating in your craft; (b) spending time in the natural environment; (c) learning to lead within positions of leadership; (d) direct, indirect, and vicarious involvement with accidents, injuries, or death; and (e) interacting with role models, mentors, and influential people. The findings of this study help to clarify the types, dimensions, and settings of experiences that contribute to outdoor leadership development.

           Participating in your craft requires outdoor leaders to actively seek recreational and developmental experiences outside of work and training. Participants explained that during experiences practicing their craft they honed their skills, experimented with different techniques, and pushed the edges of their physical, mental, and emotional limits. Immersion and exposure to the natural environment influenced many participants’ experiences of outdoor leadership development, and weather, natural disasters, and the wildness of the natural environment promoted safety frames of mind among all participants.

           A number of participants discussed spending time in the natural environment as being essential for outdoor leadership development as well as self-awareness and personal growth. Some participants reported the out-of-doors to be a source of healing and self-actualization. Their experiences in the natural environment have become a part of their philosophy and value systems and manifested themselves in their teaching and leading of outdoor experiences. By traveling for extended periods of time in the natural environment, outdoor leaders can become proficient at outdoor living skills and develop a connectedness and appreciation for the natural environment. The experiences become a way of life. These findings support the need for extended outdoor experiences both for work and training as well as non-work and training related experiences.

          The opportunity for leadership, whether available or created, appeared to be essential for outdoor leadership development. Participants explained how they became more skilled and knowledgeable by leading within positions of leadership. They had the opportunity to teach others, model behaviors, work with people, plan programs, and make decisions and judgment calls regarding safety, weather, travel, and group dynamics. The outdoor leadership literature described these skills as meta-skills, soft skills, and interpersonal skills and provided evidence that these skills are difficult to develop within institutional training due to their complexity and nature (Phipps & Swiderski, 1990; Priest & Gass, 1997).

          Participants experienced real and immediate consequences through leading within positions of leadership. Participants emphasized that outdoor leaders should not go beyond their own skill limits when working with groups and that leading within positions of leadership is not the place to push the edge of your own skills. These findings supported Rogers (1979) proposal that the acquisition of technical skills and leadership development may best be acquired separate of each other. However, participants acknowledged their institutional training and its value and application. Participants argued that positions of leadership provided the opportunity for applying skills and knowledge acquired within institutional training.

          Throughout their stories, participants reinforced the theories of experiential learning and reflective learning by developing their skills and knowledge through experience, reflection, and application. All of the participants referred to making mistakes and errors early in their outdoor leadership experiences. Through the nature of this narrative life history study, the process of experiential learning emerged within the stories of experience occurring over a long period of time. Participants exemplified making meaning of later experiences by applying knowledge from previous experiences or developing new ways of knowing.

          A number of the participants referred to actively journaling throughout their lives; others spoke about reflecting during their experiences and its influence on their decisions and judgments regarding safety in the field. Participants explained how they reflected on experiences while making decisions choosing climbing or hiking routes or setting up safety lines during high mountain ascents. This thought process was consistent with Schon’s (1983) theory of reflection-in-action involving thinking about an idea as it is happening.

          Educators, trainers, hiring professionals, and leaders in the field can take an active role in creating and providing opportunities for leadership for outdoor leaders. This study supports the necessary and continued development and integration of practical experiences in outdoor leadership development. However, the findings in this study emphasize the importance of an early introduction to leading in positions of leadership, the process of experiential and reflective learning, and the interaction with role models, mentors, and influential people.

          Throughout their stories, participants shared experiences directly, indirectly, and vicariously involving accidents, injuries, and death. Participants acknowledged the seriousness of their profession and the reality that a life threatening accident or injury could occur at any time. Participants promoted proactive, safety frames of mind as a result of direct experience with less serious accidents and injuries and direct, indirect, or vicarious experiences with death. The role of vicarious experiences whether observing or through dialogue seemed to affect participants as well. Participants explained how they were impacted by these experiences through dealing with the grieving process, exploring their involvement, and watching peers experience a participant’s death.

           In addition to behavioral observations, participants acknowledged the role of verbal dialogue. Overhearing conversations and listening to stories of past experience influenced participants’ learning. The use of case studies has emerged as a method for developing decision making skills, and Raiola (1997) found that students rated case studies to be one of the most valuable components of an outdoor leadership curriculum. This study supported the further investigation of case studies and stories as a method of exposing and training outdoor leaders for the prevention or management of situations involving accidents, injuries, or death.

          The fifth theme within the participants’ stories was interacting with role models, mentors, and influential people. All participants spoke of individuals who influenced their personal and professional development throughout their lives. These individuals included family members, friends, teachers, colleagues, co-leaders, students, peers, and employers. The participants explained that these individuals had a significant impact on them because they listened, offered trust, gave feedback, provided opportunity, shared knowledge, and modeled skills and behaviors.

           Observing experienced leaders and receiving feedback were identified as beneficial by participants in this study. This supported the literature on vicarious learning and outdoor leadership preparation (Bandura, 1986; Plaut, 2001; Priest, 1987). Outdoor leadership preparation programs are designed with structured reflection and instructor apprenticeships to foster learning from feedback and observational learning of supervisors, co-leaders, and peers (Plaut, 2001; Teeters & Lupton, 1999).

           This study supports the integration and development of vicarious learning, both verbal and non-verbal, within the professional development of outdoor leaders. Methods of fostering vicarious learning opportunities include sharing stories and case studies of outdoor leadership experiences. Interaction with mentors and role models promote verbal dialogue through sharing stories and lessons learned as well as observation of technical skills and behaviors. Direct involvement with role models and mentors promotes opportunities for developing skills in reflection-in-action and giving and receiving feedback.

            This collection of master outdoor leaders’ stories of professional development contributes to the vicarious learning of developing outdoor leaders. In addition, the stories of master outdoor leaders can contribute to developing a documented history of outdoor leadership and the individuals who have contributed to the field. The research process of interviewing and collecting stories provided information on the characteristics, attributes, years of experience, and training backgrounds of master outdoor leaders. This information along with their stories of experience contributes to the field’s knowledge of master outdoor leaders and the components that contribute to attaining a level of mastery as an outdoor leader. The life history format of this research provides a method of understanding the dynamic and continuous, life long process of outdoor leadership development.

            The implications of this study require that educators and trainers of outdoor leaders not  only recommend and require more specific experiences for outdoor leadership development, but also actively create and provide these experiences as well as serve as mentors and role models in the process. This study supported the literature that outdoor leadership development is a lifelong process, and the implications support early involvement and continued activity in outdoor leadership related experiences for professional development.


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