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Reflections on Outward Bound® and Leadership

“Leadership is a relationship, founded on trust and confidence.” (Kouzes and Posner)

These days Leadership is still one of the hot topics in the business and training world.  Not a surprise, then, that leadership forms a regular part of many Outward Bound® schools’ program offerings, particularly for corporate clients.  Yet “leadership” is often used to refer to a wide variety of different visions, definitions, emphases, situations. As Outward Bound® steps into this fray with our own programs, we are called upon to define our own perspective on Leadership.  Which of the various perspectives and models currently in use do we recognize?  Which perspectives “make sense” in the context of our organisational vision and mission?  What kind of leadership do we practice ourselves in our work as Outward Bound® facilitators?

We would like to propose that a brief exploration of the values and practices inherent in Facilitative Leadership yields an interesting perspective of our work with our program participants.

What is the heart of Facilitative Leadership?  (For simplicity’s sake, we use this title to refer to several different leadership models which have a great deal in common.)



Traditionally, leaership was associated with authority and hierarchy, control and compliance.  In recent years there has been a strong move towards more participative leadership focused on issues such as empowerment and commitment.  The heart of this shift has been a shift in the locus of power in relationships involving a leader.  Roger Schwartz describes this as follows: "facilitative leaders change the distribution of power from being held largely by the leader to being shared by the facilitative leader and group member.  Shared power in turn makes possible joint control."

This shift has been visible not only in companies but also in schools.  Expeditionary Learning has played an important role in questioning and re-imagining the role of the classroom teacher: “As students take responsibility for their learning, the role of the teacher changes.  No longer do they have to appear to know everything.  Rather they, like their students, can be learners…  In the context of sharing learning, the teacher’s role shifts from teacher as purveyor of knowledge to teacher as guide.” (Cousins)  In the words of Elenor Duckworth, such teachers "uncover topics rather than cover topics" and "impel into experience" rather than "tell into experience" (quoted by R. Bear).  The heart of our work as experiential educators reflects a similar perspective: “Experiential education … takes the learners’ experience as a reference point and in doing so the “locus of control is shifted away from the teacher in the direction of the learner.” (Woolfe in Hovelynck)

In short, “facilitative power is power through, not power over.”  (Dunlap and Goldman, quoted in Lashway)

This ability to share power, to step down from the safety of a hierarchical position, requires a certain emotional maturity from a leader.   It means being able to set oneself on the side and being really present and listening deeply to our participants, learning how to move with them at their pace and at their level of awareness, while presenting them with activities that have the potential to stretch them from their current place to a new place.  It means being able to respect our participants’ learning agendas even when they don’t match ours.  And this can be difficult.

Conley and Goldman warn against an insidious danger, saying that leaders “may lapse into “pseudo-facilitative leadership,” using the language of facilitation while covertly trying to lead employees to a preordained conclusion.” (in Lashway)  As customers are increasingly demanding clearly defined program outcomes to what extent do we allow ourselves to become “pseudo-facilitative leaders”?  To what extent does our continuing reliance on terms such as “instructor” and “student” refer to a similar dynamic? 

Developing Others

The test for “pseudo-facilitative leadership” rests perhaps in the following statement:  "The key question that determines whether what someone is doing qualifies as servant-leadership is to ask: "...do those served grow as persons; do they while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?" (Greenleaf) 

Facilitative leaders help people discover their own leadership and / or potential, "leading others to lead themselves." (Manz and Sims)  Or as Schwartz writes, "ultimately, … facilitative leaders help others learn how to learn."

Fundamental to this developmental process is helping others, as Greenleaf writes, to become more autonomous and less dependent.  “To develop the group’s long-term effectiveness, the facilitative leader seeks to decrease the group’s dependence on the leader.” (Schwartz) 

In our work with participants we are also working towards enabling our participants to be autonomous actors in their own lives.  Whether by means of training expeditions or careful debriefs, we work to develop participants’ ability to better understand themselves and others, make decisions, interact with one another effectively so as to be able to enter the uncharted territory of “homeward bound”.  Doesn’t the real “final expedition” take place as they step out of our doors headed home, hopefully better equipped to solve their own problems in the future, better able to self-facilitate as it were, having learned how to learn?

In a different light, it might be interesting to consider in what ways we do continue to keep our participants dependent on us during our programs.  What is the impact on participants’ dependency of choosing highly technical environments to work in?  During debriefs, to what extent do we stay in the role of the (“expert”) teacher, even to the point of telling participants what they learned in a particular activity?  By doing so, to what extent are we satisfying our own needs to be perceived as the expert or as a guru? 

“Plus est en vous”

The ability to lead as a facilitative leader is based upon a fundamental belief and trust in the potential of people to learn and grow: "plus est en vous".  This belief is fundamental to being able to step out of the traditional role of leader.  The leader's key task is to motivate others to grow and become better than they know they are.   

“Successful facilitation may depend less on any particular set of behaviors than on the underlying belief system.  Conley and Goldman emphasize the importance of trust, “a letting go of control and an increasing belief that others can and will function independently and successfully within a common framework of expectations and accountability” (quoted in Lashway).


We would like to close with a final perspective on leadership.

“Leadership begins and ends in the interrelations of people working together… The effectiveness of leadership … is determined by the vitality of the process itself, that is, by the vitality of the interactions between the people involved and by the extent to which people are willing to take responsibility for those interactions, for nurturing and improving them.”  (McCauley, Moxley, Velsor)

If we take this seriously, the consequences are significant.  Our effectiveness as leaders rests not in any tool-kit, expedition plan, or model, but in the relationships we are able to develop with our participants.

Jen Nold, Rebecca Bear, Cathy Bernatt
(Members of Outward Bound® Global Facilitation Network)



Cousins, Emily, (1998).  Reflections of Design Principles (Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound).  Debuque: Kendall / Hunt Publishing Company.

Greenleaf, Robert K., (1977).  Servant Leadership.  Mahwah, NJ.: Paulist Press.

Hovelynck, Johan (2003). “Moving Active Learning Forward” in The Journal of Experiential Education 2003, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp.1-7.  Boulder: Association for Experiential Education.

Kouzes, James M. & Posner, Barry Z.. (2002).  The Leadership Challenge.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Lashway, Larry, “Facilitative Leadership” (1995).  ERIC Digest, Number 96.  Eugene: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management.

Manz, C. C., & Sime, H.P., Fr. (1989).  SuperLeadership: Leading others to lead themselves.  New York: Prentice-Hall.

McCauley, Cynthia D., Moxley, Russ S., Van Velsor, Ellen, eds (1998). The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Schwarz, Roger M., The Skilled Faciltator (1994). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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