Learning to be a leader

  • Safety
  • Enjoyment
  • Achievement
  • What makes a leader?

An apprentice stonemason does not begin to learn the trade by first building a soaring cathedral. Cleaning up the rubble or perhaps sharpening the tools may be a more appropriate place to start. Similarly, the pathway to good leadership begins with the basic skills and slowly progresses to more advanced capabilities.

Your own journey along the pathway to becoming a leader should be conscious and directed. First of all you must be capable of completing as a group member the types of trips you imagine leading. Your technical skills and physical fitness should allow you to comfortably participate in the type of trips you wish to lead. Only then can you concentrate on the tasks of leadership. If basic survival tasks, such as pitching your own tent or coping with inclement weather push you to your limits, then you are probably not yet ready to assume the sometimes onerous task of leadership.

The many aspects of an outdoor experience can be viewed as pieces of a jigsaw. It is your job as a leader to shape these pieces and fit them together to create an experience that satisfies the participants. Three important pieces of this jigsaw are safety, enjoyment and achievement. Shaping each of these pieces so that they fit together to create the desired experience for your group can be both a challenging and rewarding task. Risk, when understood and dealt with wisely, can add that spice which encourages people to push that bit harder and achieve at their peak ability. The subject of risk was discussed in Chapter 6, and also in more detail in Martin and Priest (1986).


Some people argue that safety is the most important piece of the jigsaw, perhaps denying the risk inherent in all outdoor experiences. For others, living on the edge or walking the tightrope is what attracts them to the outdoors.

The level of risk that you as leader choose to accept will be influenced by many things. The attitudes of group members, your own attitude, your legal responsibilities and the attitudes or policies of any organisation for whom you may be leading are all important considerations. Regardless of any gung-ho tendencies, your trip must fit somewhere on the continuum that runs from safe to safer to safest to paranoid! Possibly, in response to current trends towards litigation, many leaders favour the paranoid end of this spectrum.


The level of enjoyment experienced during a trip is obviously subjective, and as such can be difficult for a leader to gauge, particularly when it differs between group members. Whenever possible, making the objectives and details of a trip explicit to prospective participants may help to match their expectations to yours. It is important to remember that each group member may be feeling differently about the trip. What is a leisurely stroll up a gentle slope to one person may be an endless struggle up an interminable mountain to the next.

Another challenge for you, the leader, is to understand that different participants may have quite different objectives. For some, the physical challenge of a long, steep climb is reward in itself, for others a gentle ramble through the orchids of spring may be pure bliss. Your task is to get inside the head of your group members, understand what makes them tick, and point them in the right direction.


Providing your group with a sense of achievement is an important ability, and will usually happen by itself if the weather is good, your objectives are reached and the trip is completed as planned. Creating a sense of achievement can be more difficult if the trip has been modified or cut short, but focusing on aspects such as camaraderie, flora and fauna and simply being outside may provide a similar sense of achievement.

It is important to remember that for some people completing the walk as planned and ‘bagging’ the peaks may be their only sense of achievement and enjoyment, but for others just being there is enough. Planning a trip with a number of highlights such as views, waterfalls and interesting flora along the way may help to provide a sense of achievement if that final peak is not reached. This also helps to break the trip into smaller, intrinsically rewarding stages, which may help someone who is finding the going tough.

What makes a leader?

Innumerable lists of the characteristics of effective leaders have been compiled. One such list, by Miles and Priest (1990) shown in Table 44.1, identifies seven skills and seven attributes that can be found in an effective leader.

Ringer (1995, p.3) added ‘passion and aliveness’ to the list of characteristics, suggesting that these attributes are ‘small but vital parts of the interpersonal and intrapersonal domain of leadership’, and are often overlooked by more traditional listings of technical skills and attributes. Letting your own passion and enthusiasm for the outdoors shine through in your dealings with other people can be the inspiration that others admire and may wish to emulate.

As a developing leader, it is useful to look at a list like this and identify your own strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are obviously where you need to further your development. It is important to remember that to be an effective leader you do not need to excel in all the skills and attributes—your own unique set of strengths and weaknesses are what gives you your identity as a leader. However, nearly all leaders will improve by actively addressing weaknesses and trying to build on strengths.

Table 44.1 Characteristics of effective leaders

Technical activity skills Motivational philosophy and interest
Safety skills Physical fitness
Organisational skills Healthy self concept and ego
Environmental skills Flexible leadership style
Problem solving and decision-making skills Awareness and empathy for others
Instructional skills Personable traits and behaviour awareness
Group management skills Judgement based on experience


Martin P. & Priest, S. 1986. Understanding the adventure experience. Journal of Adventure Education 3(1), 18–21.

Miles J. & Priest S. 1990. Adventure Education.Venture Publishing Inc., Pennsylvania. Ringer M. 1995. Passion and aliveness in outdoor leadership. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education 1(2), 3–15.