In the middle of the night a CEO is keeping watch at the campfire, while his fellow travellers are asleep under the wild open skies. In the moonlight he sees a giant male elephant drinking at the river, only 30 meters away. After this experience he becomes a better leader.
The example is a bit silly and simple but Boy van Droffelaar shows in this interesting PhD that wilderness-based training programs do result in more authentic leadership. Van Droffelaar, an executive coach and a facilitator at the Foundation for Natural Leadership (FNL), gained his PhD in October 2020 at LUW.
The core of the FNL-programs is that a small group of leaders goes into the wilderness with a facilitator and a guide. The programs take place in amongst others Botswana, South Africa, Rwanda, the Alps and Ireland. At the beginning of the trail participants give up their possessions, such as mobiles and watches. They only take their sleeping bag on their backs, a note book and the food they eat. They spend three to six days in the wilderness, partly in solitude, for example by keeping watch at the fire during the night, but they also share their experiences and insights in the group. They walk in line in silence. Before the trail a foundation workshop takes place and after the trail an integration workshop.
Van Droffelaar states that leaders probably learn more from feeling things than knowing things. Emotions are unfairly overlooked in leadership development. That is too often based on cognition-based learning to improve competences rather than addressing the capacities of leaders, their inner resources in the face of complex leadership challenges, he writes, but there is a lack of empirical evidence for measurable outcomes of leadership development interventions.
The author writes that peak experiences play a key role in the development of leaders. Their development is always part of a larger process of personal growth as a result of living their lives, including the passing away of dear ones, sickness, the birth of children, etc. Immersion in wilderness can lead to significant life events through evoking peak experiences. These experiences might catalyze intentions to change one’s leadership style. Van Droffelaar notices an impact on four compenents of authentic leadership: self-awareness, internalized moral perspective, balanced processing of information, relational transparency. He also distinghuishes four types of peak experiences: heightened sense of self, awareness of one’s core values, a sense of deep connected attention, and being in full presence, building on participants’ reported fascination for the beauty of nature, increased sensory awareness, feeling one with nature, a deep connection with self.
Participants usually join because they are at a crossroads in their life or career. They have four types of intentions: be more aware of self, live by the inner compass, improve careful listening, become more transparent. They are ready and eager to develop themselves.
Interviewed participants believed that their wilderness experiences had permanently influenced their leadership style. Perceived changes included a shift in consciousness, more peace of mind, increased self-confidence, and more open interconnectedness with peers and followers.
There is a primary and a secondary impact of the trail. Primary as a result of what happens during the trail and to which decisions this leads. Secondary because participants often vividly remember their experiences after the trail, often even years later. About half of the respondents reported that they relived their wilderness experiences almost every day, the other half voiced their thought of the trail almost every week, triggered mostly by tense personal contacts, stress or challenges.
Boy van Droffelaar. The impact of a wilderness-based training program on leadership transformation. ISBN 978-94-6395-423-6