Leading from the Outside-In: Outdoor Leadership Programs

Leading from the Outside-In: Outdoor Leadership Programs

How climbing a mountain or communing with horses can help you become a better leader

Leadership is a tricky beast.

For executives and managers, it's is an extremely important skill; but developing it in the workplace can be difficult, when day-to-day tasks, meetings, and other rote activities get in the way.

And for some executives, especially those who are tuned-in to a growing body of leadership research, sitting in a classroom as a way to develop these skills might not seem like the best option. 

“We learn by doing,” says Scott DeRue, who teaches at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. “We learn outside the classroom, by experiencing challenging developmental situations.”

DeRue, who is also an accomplished mountaineer (he just climbed Mt. Everest in May), recently put together a new course for Ross called “Advanced Leadership in Action: Kilimanjaro,” where, over seven to eight days, executives will climb to the top of the storied peak.

So how does a climbing to over 19,000 feet build leadership skills? In DeRue's research, he's found evidence suggesting that while at work, the pressure for executives to perform can actually inhibit risk-taking, which makes it harder to learn new skills.

Risk-taking at work can be challenging because, “all the natural fears and anxieties come in and people say 'what's my boss going to think about me?'”

And getting out on a mountain, in a new environment that's not as performance-oriented (and where the boss won't be watching), can open people up to new experiences and risks.

A trek can also help executives make better decisions in an uncertain, complex environment – a mountain conveniently serves as a vivid metaphor for today's business world. In the workplace, “the level of uncertainty that we deal with, the level of complexity that we deal with, is extreme,” DeRue says. 

“The same thing is true on the mountain – you deal with all these uncertainties, whether it's weather, health, the itinerary itself, or the complexity of all the group dynamics.”

In short, a course like this can take executives out of their normal workplace environment, so that they can perceive themselves and their leadership skills more clearly, without the distractions of performance reviews, board meetings, or profit-and-loss statements.

Leadership on four legs

“You're so glued to your desk, and you're so glued to everything that's going on, you don't have proper perspective,” in a workplace environment, says Yolanda Sing.

Sing facilitates a two-day program at South Africa's University of Stellenbosch Business School, called  “Authentic Leadership through the Gift of Horses” where participants explore leadership by interacting with horses. The principle, according to Sing, is that horses can help executives to achieve a higher level of self-awareness, since the executives' equine learning partners are extremely perceptive and intuitive.

“One of the things that really trips up leaders is that they're not self-aware,” Sing says. “They show up to work, and they're not aware of how their behavior and how their thoughts impact their team.”

However, unlike many humans, horses “are very in-tune [with their environment],” Sing says. “They're really perceptive of non-verbal behaviors – it's much more accurate than any human being can give you feedback on.”

Executives who pursue the course learn that it's not just what they say that makes them a real leader – it's the subtle exchanges, body language, and simply how they carry themselves and interact with others.

And, according to Sing, it's stepping out of the day-to-day routine that really brings home the message.

“It's the horses, it's the fresh air, it's a different environment, it's out of the boardroom,” she says. “All of this gives people an opportunity to really look at themselves from the outside in, about how they are perceived as a leader.”

Other leadership courses that can help executives get out of the office:

Innovation in Corporate Sustainability: Your Leadership Path to Sustainability
Offered at Erasmus University's Rotterdam School of Management, this five-day program takes executives out into the Swiss Alps, to help them learn about sustainability through nature.

Participants in adventure courses from the National Outdoor Leadership School can undertake a variety of outdoor activities, from rock climbing to snowboarding, in order to build leadership skills.

Advanced High Performance Leadership from IMD Executive Education also takes place in the Swiss Alps, and is designed for executives who want to improve their leadership skills in a natural environment.


Related Business Schools

Michigan - Ross


Erasmus - RSM


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