Outdoor Leadership and Group Cohesion

Role Play Scenario Debrief
Role Play Scenario Debrief

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.

Group Decision Making
Group Decision Making

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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  1. Good stuff – glad you enjoyed the course. From a technical perspective, getting up and down the mountain is pretty easy. Getting a group of people with different personalities, expectations, knowledge, skills, abilities, experiences, clothing, gear, equipment, supplies, and risk acceptability is a bit more challenging. Despite all the trips I've organized and led, taking/teaching the leadership program you took, and taking the advanced mountain leadership school I still mess up from time-to-time and manage to learn something nearly every time out. The trick is to make sure you learn from the mistake and never let it happen again – at least be better prepared to minimize either the risk or the adverse outcome.

    The strength of the group is much stronger than the sum of its individual parts. Rarely am I the fastest in the group. Often times there are people with better technical skills. I think the role of the leader is to manage all of these resources in the most effective way to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip for everyone in the group. That's the hard part. I think a good outdoor leader is like a good sports official – you know you did a good job if no one knows you're there. The leader guides the process and the group makes the decisions without even knowing it.

    Michael Blair http://www.meetup.com/random-hikers

  2. I'd be pretty interested in taking a similar course out here (AZ). I've led quite a few group hikes and I've been on hikes led by others and there is a huge difference in the way people lead. For myself, I've noticed that I tend to take on the role of Herder…simply letting the party do what it wants as long as it heads in the right direction and doesn't leave anyone behind. I'm basically there as backup, advice, troubleshooting and navigator.

    I'd really like to see what I could learn from a leadership course.

  3. Dave – it's real worthwhile and a useful skill that's clearly transferable to the workplace. Maybe you can get your employer to spring for a NOLS class near you.

  4. Philip – really insightful post. Its good to hear that AMC takes this stuff seriously. Unfortunately I am in New York City but would love to do one of these types of courses.

  5. Jeff – not sure if it's offered in different cities besides the Boston Chapter, but the AMC does have a centralized training organization that might oversee different regions. I don't know. I have met many many awesome trip leaders associated with the AMC over the years and it's the part of the organization I've always had the most contact with. I'm frankly a little surprised at how much I learned from this class and already starting to use as a co-leader.

  6. Interesting,,,ask them if they recognize the training an Army or Marine Corps Squad leader.. Our basic NCO Leadership School lasted a full 30 days and then we had to put it all into practice for a number of years as Squad or Platoon Leaders and those who failed or were not capable were washed out. Does this group "wash out" those incapable or do they just carry them along?

  7. You need to be voted by a committee to move from co-leader to leader, so I suppose you can be voted down. My guess is that most people drop out anyway due to the time and effort commitment before they've co-led enough trips to qualify. .

  8. Since there are a number of scout leaders reading this – it reminds me a lot of the "wood badge for the 20th century" curriculum.. Very worthwhile if you haven't taken it (I'm a bobwhite, 92-53).

  9. Voted? sort of like the Survivor thing on TV where they voted away the most capable and best trained and keep the most socialable? I mean when you vote off a trained Navy SEAL or a guy with thousands of trail miles for a pretty face or a something less that is of like voting of the the Poltiician who promises you everything,,,Lols, but that was when I stopped watching the show.

  10. They are voting on my application for four-season leader at their December meeting. I will be anxiously awaiting the puffs of smoke coming from the AMC Headquarters on Joy Street.

    Michael Blair http://www.meetup.com/random-hikers

  11. Funny – I had that same image yesterday. Eddie – Michael looks like a SEAL, so I guess that means he'll get approved. Buzz cut and everything.

  12. Rob – I'm working with a wood badge candidate down in Austin and I got the impression that it's more involved that the Boston chapter training. I think we mainly got a good dose of Patrol philosophy on this course, but I must say I have a great er appreciation for it now.

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