I’ve been taking an outdoor leadership class for the past month with the Boston Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club in order to qualify to become a volunteer backpacking and hiking group leader. I graduated last weekend and can now co-lead hiking, backpacking and mountaineering trips and eventually accumulate enough experience to become a full leader.
Going through this training process was an eye opener for me. At first, I thought this was just one of the bureaucratic, risk adverse things that the Boston Chapter puts you through to lead group trips, but I’ve come away with a new appreciation for what is required to be a good leader.
The key takeaway for me was the role a leader must play in helping a group of strangers with different expectations, levels of skill, fitness levels and personal agendas, come together and work as a team. That may sound completely obvious, but it’s a subtle and elusive skill for a lot of people and one that I have never paid that much attention to acquiring and getting really good at. I’ve always focused on more technical skill development and skill mentoring and not group dynamics on the trips I’ve led or co-led in the past.
But taking this course really helped me see the difference between a well functioning group and a poorly functioning one in a new light. About 70% of the course content is based around group activities, staged scenarios and role play, and peer debriefs. It was an eye opener and very effectively taught by volunteer leaders from the Boston Chapter.
Here are some of the hard lessons I learned:
- facilitating group cohesion is as important as the outdoor activity
- group decision making is almost always better than decisions made by a single individual
- group cohesion and buy-in is always enhanced by discussing different alternatives, even if a non-democratic, authoritative decision is made
- group safety can be greatly enhanced by good group cohesion where people are looking out for one another
- extreme behavior or attitude can often be moderated by group members more than by a leader
I have to hand it to the instructors for the class who shared their experiences with us in a very non-judgmental way and were very supportive throughout this process. I hope I can pay you back by becoming an effective leader for the chapter and help teach this class to other prospective leaders some day.
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