Adaptive Leadership, the Outward Bound Way

I have been involved with Outward Bound for more than half my life. I joined the team at age twenty-two and have returned on several occasions through my journey as a leader. I’ve worked with leaders in a variety of contexts over the past twenty years, but nothing compares to the real and immediate adaptive leadership lessons offered on expedition.

A group of sixteen agricultural leaders joined us for a six-day expedition as part of a recent program with the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation.

A common feature of Outward Bound programs is the use of leadership teams as a learning tool. Participants are invited to work in small groups (two to three people) to lead a day, activity, or aspect of the program.

They lead each other through off-track expeditions, strategy initiatives, and complex activities such as a Descent.

The Descent activity requires the group to get themselves and their equipment over a series of cliffs using a combination of abseiling and the set-up of a flying fox for their equipment. The group needs to learn how to tie the knots, manage each other, communicate when the team is physically separated.

This is all while both the group and leadership team are physically separated. With some of the team at the top of the cliff and others at the bottom, communication gets trickier.

All Outward Bound activities have a purpose that directly translates to meaningful lessons in contemporary workplaces. It’s increasingly common for workplace teams to not be face-to-face, and with that comes all kinds of challenges. Communication in these settings needs to be more conscious and considered.

More and more, leadership needs to be adaptive and collaborative.

Adaptive leadership

Adaptive leadership—the ability to lead through dynamics that are unknown and constantly changing—is at the heart of the Outward Bound and ARLF philosophy. Expeditioning is a naturally adaptive activity, making it an ideal vehicle for exploring its application.

Participants gain an embodied understanding of the ARLF’s six leadership practices—authenticity, awareness, affiliation, adaptation, advocacy and action.

As the practice of affiliation alludes to, adaptive leadership isn’t done in isolation. Working with others is crucial to a leader’s effectiveness.

Collaborative leadership recognises that individual leaders won’t always have access to the skills or capabilities for the task at hand. Yet by working with others, especially those who are different, we can access more rounded solutions to problems and inspire a greater level of teamwork and collaboration.

Walking the talk

This idea of collaborative leadership is not just something we ask our participants to do. It is deeply embedded in the culture of Outward Bound. On this program we had a team of three facilitators who led and supported the program including logistics, safety, and learning.

Each of us brought a unique set of skills and talents, as well as areas for continued growth. While we were each skilled professionals in outdoor leadership education, the nature of this work means that we are pushed alongside of the participants.

Evening debriefs included us unpacking the lessons of the day, and the group being able to harvest important leadership lessons such as self-advocacy, listening, clear and constant communication, empathy and attention to the needs of the group, collaborating with other leaders, and the awareness of one’s limitations.

group reflection

Disconnect to reconnect

On the first day, the participants were invited to surrender their phones and did so with an almost-excited willingness. They were seeking an opportunity to disconnect from the constant demands of phone calls and messages. Many reported throughout the week how liberating this was, and how grateful they were for the opportunity to reconnect with themselves. The absence of technology allows the group to be fully present with each other and form bonds they would otherwise not have been able to form.

It seems like the desire to disconnect and get out bush is more necessary and appealing now than it has ever been. There are lessons and benefits afforded on Outward Bound that simply cannot be gained in a classroom or the city.

Outward Bound for your organisation

Adaptive leadership is vital to organisations in our modern world. With over 60 years’ experience teaching leadership in Australia, Outward Bound is well-positioned as a partner for your organisation’s leadership program.

Outward Bound offers leadership programs for a diverse range of client groups. Our open-enrolment Outward Bound Leadership program is offered for emerging adults (ages 15-24) in the school holidays.

Leading Australian businesses and institutions also seek us out as a vital part of their leadership development programs. Recent clients have included Australian Rural Leadership Foundation, DT Global, Boral, and Australian Defence Force Academy.

Call Ian Wells on 0419 203 374 or email to learn more.

Simone (ARLF), Laura, and Benny

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