As thousands of Outward Bound students take to the field this summer, Outward Bound’s approach to teaching, learning, leadership, and above all, compassion is put into practice daily. At Outward Bound, the value and practice of compassion is supported and encouraged, in the hopes that Outward Bound students carry that with them long after they return home.
So Much More Than Being in Charge
In Chade Meng-Tan’s book, “Search Inside Yourself” he writes, “The practice of compassion is about going from self to others. In a way, compassion is about going from ‘I’ to ‘We.’ So, if switching from ‘I’ to ‘We’ is the most important process of becoming an authentic leader, those who practice compassion will already know how and will have a head start.”
At Outward Bound, we create learning environments that inspire a style of leadership—compassionate leadership—that looks and feels different from ways in which leadership styles are often presented or understood. Leadership is not the loudest person at the front of the line or the bully who uses threats and fear. Nor does leadership default to the person with the highest IQ, the biggest muscles or the most experience. In fact, we have found, that across 60 years of programs and countless days in the field, effective leadership hinges on the ability to engage and motivate others with compassion.
Compassion is a core value of Outward Bound. At Outward Bound, across the full range of courses we offer, compassion is put into practice daily. Instead of being the first person up the trail to conquer the mountain or being the first to successfully roll a kayak, we encourage students to think about what is required to help their whole crew overcome a challenge. Individual mastery of skills is, of course, a focus of the Instructor/student dynamic. At the same time, however, Instructors challenge students to consider the meaning of success. Have we achieved success if one person on the crew cannot master a skill or is left behind?
What does it mean for the crew if someone struggles or feels left out? At Outward Bound, we don’t just “move on,” “let it go,” or “ignore.” We stop and reflect. We ask the students to put themselves in the shoes of their crewmate; to consider how they might feel in that circumstance if roles were reversed. We ask them to consider what they will represent or what they will stand for when put in that situation. We ask them to consider the role they play in the experience and success of the entire crew. Through an intentional process of individual and group reflection, we ask them to share their thoughts, to discuss and to consider alternative paths to success. And then they get to try again to achieve success on the next day where new challenges await.
Out of that process, those experiences and intentional instruction from Outward Bound staff, students discover a leadership style that we, at Outward Bound, call ‘compassionate leadership.’
So Much More Than Being Comfortable
Outward Bound creates learning opportunities for students by asking, encouraging and supporting them to step into the uncomfortable. Students practice getting comfortable in the uncomfortable. To recognize situations—and themselves in different situations—so that their self-awareness develops into a humble self-confidence. Importantly, as students discover their own insecurities and explore situations where their strengths or weaknesses are realized, they come to respect the insecurities or false boastfulness of others. Are you naturally assertive? Step back today, listen more. Do you often refrain from talking in group discussions? Maybe try to share your opinion during the morning discussion. Are you someone who loves to pound uphill leaving everyone in your dust? Try walking at the rear of the crew.
It sounds so simple and obvious. Be mindful. Consider others. Check your privileges or assumptions as you leave your tent. Act on behalf of your crew. But it is not simple. Learning to be mindful and respectful of others does not come naturally. Choosing to voice your own fears or insecurities to a group of peers does not come easy, to anyone. Outward Bound creates opportunities for students to practice, speak up and to listen during new and often uncomfortable situations. And in these new situations, students discover that outside of their comfort zones is where learning and growth takes place.
Marina Ewald, co-founder of the Salem School alongside Kurt Hahn and the first expedition Instructor at Salem, wrote that expeditions were “like a voyage of discovery,” that became the baseline for authentic learning.
So Much More Than Fun and Adventure
So now it’s summer. A time for barbecues, pool parties and vacations. Maybe a little extra time with family, friends and communities.
At Outward Bound, summer means a busy season of hundreds of courses headed into spectacular natural places on expeditions ranging from a few days to nearly 90 days in length.
Our course-end reports and social media channels are filled with images of students scaling granite peaks, navigating tricky rapids, moving as crews through high ropes challenge courses. And that’s amazing.
However, beyond all the group photos and selfies of Outward Bound adventures and adventurers(!), students are asked—and pushed—to reflect, to recognize and understand that these adventures, days that will last in their memories for the rest of their lives, are so much more than an Instagram story or Facebook post.
All those images represent moments of triumph or success that are the result of a profound educational experience. Yes, it’s true that Outward Bound courses are an adventure. Outward Bound courses are fun. AND Outward Bound courses are an education, and in particular, a mastery of a range of life skills that are transferable back home to the kitchen table, the classroom or even the boardroom.
Our educational framework is built on these outcomes: Leadership, Character and Service. Importantly, on a leadership style—compassionate leadership—where the challenges faced in the outdoors push students into their authentic learning zone.
Outward Bound remains committed to encouraging and inspiring students to develop as compassionate leaders through expeditions of discovery. When students complete their Outward Bound course and post the photo of their dirty, exhausted and smiling face on Instagram or Facebook, we see them as compassionate leaders and recognize their strength of character that will guide them for the rest of their lives.
About the Author
Josh Brankman is the Executive Director of Outward Bound USA. Formerly an innovative high school principal in the Bay Area when he became a founding member of what is now Outward Bound California (OBCA), Josh recently transitioned from leading the OBCA organization to join the national leadership at Outward Bound. He led OBCA from its start-up phase to a comprehensive strategy for growth, incorporating thought leadership and commitment of OBCA staff every step of the way, which gives him both perspective and experience around compassionate leadership and what it takes to achieve it.
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