Forging a New Understanding of Leadership in Wilderness Education

By Koesler, Rena A. | Parks & Recreation, July 1995 | Go to article overview

Forging a New Understanding of Leadership in Wilderness Education


Koesler, Rena A., Parks & Recreation


A multitude of factors influence individual outcomes in a wilderness program. Although a variety of leadership training settings can be selected, most wilderness education programs use the natural environment to develop leadership skills. The length of time spent in the wilderness, the physical and emotional challenges, and the interpersonal relationships encountered during a wilderness experience can be influential in developing behaviors and skills that are representative of leadership qualities.

A primary goal of many wilderness education programs is for participants to continue their involvement in wilderness education, either as a career or as a leisure time activity. This continued involvement often leads to the development of leadership in wilderness skills and experiences. Researchers and practitioners suggest that active involvement in a variety of outdoor-related experiences such as classes, workshops, personal experiences, reading, leadership opportunities and responsibilities, and past outdoor-related jobs can contribute largely to the "process" of developing leadership (Cain and McAvoy, 1990; Ford and Blanchard, 1985; Green, 1990). This "Research Update" will highlight research related to factors that have contributed to the leadership development process.

Leadership Development

Fairholm (1991) indicated that the three best known models of leadership over the past 100 years are trait theory (who the leader is), behavioral theory (what the leader does), and situational leadership (where the leadership takes place). Although the outdoor leadership literature acknowledges the significance of these three models, it places greater emphasis on developmental skills such as judgment and decision-making, mentoring, and ongoing feedback as valuable components of leadership development (Cain and McAvoy, 1990; Ford and Blanchard, 1985; Green, 1990; Raiola, 1990).

This literature supports the idea that leadership is not an end in itself. Specifically, leadership development is considered an ongoing process preceded by certain personality and situational factors. Therefore, the degree of leadership development is a function of the process requiring active involvement in a variety of outdoor related experiences.

In support of this conjecture, Green (1990) contended that outdoor leaders should have a grounding in leadership ethics which can be acquired and learned through reading, attending seminars, and networking with other professional outdoor leaders. Raiola (1990) noted that two essential components to leadership development are continual training and education in outdoor related experiences. Ford and Blanchard (1985) suggested that experience as a participant and as a leader in outdoor pursuits, along with successful completion of courses and workshops in outdoor skills, also are important ingredients to competency in leadership development. Cain and McAvoy (1990) found that judgment and decision-making abilities are measured through the process of an instructor evaluating the student through written appraisals as well as ongoing, structured, and cumulative feedback given over a period of time.

Self-Efficacy and Leadership Development

Self-efficacy is defined as one's perception of her or his ability to act in specific situations or perform certain tasks (e.g., climbing, backpacking, leading) of varying difficulty (Bandura, 1977). Numerous studies have been conducted on the theory of self-efficacy, but only a few in the outdoor and wilderness education fields. Brody, Hatfield, and Spalding (1988) found that the self-efficacy levels developed by rappelling were generalizable to other high risk sports but did not generalize to everyday stressful encounters. Koesler (1994) found that self-efficacy had a positive relationship to leadership development. In other words, the stronger the self-efficacy in wilderness skills, the more likely a student will develop outdoor leadership through continued involvement in wilderness education activities in the future. …

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