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Responsible, effective, psychological leadership essential to group welfare in outdoors

This is an excerpt from Teaching Adventure Education Theory by Robert Stremba & Christian Bisson.

Understanding how and when to share leadership roles is an important leadership skill. A trip is safer and the successes and failures of the experience are more readily accessible to the participants if they feel control over the outcome. Appropriate sharing of leadership jobs in the effective and psychological domains is a way to include participants more in the internal process of the trip-and, by extension, in the group accomplishments, both tangible and intangible. Through this lesson students can learn about the responsible, effective, and psychological functions of a leader and learn more about doing all three jobs as a leader as well as sharing the jobs appropriately.


Three functions of leadership are essential to the welfare of a group: responsible leadership, effective leadership, and psychological leadership (Berne 1963; Clarke 1983).

The responsible leader is the person with a title and the person who, if anything goes wrong, is called to account by a higher authority. The responsible leader has the last word on safety issues and must constantly be mindful of safety considerations. This person has the ultimate responsibility for maintaining the goal of the trip or program. As part of the responsible leadership job, the leader is constantly monitoring the group members and thinking about the group's process.

An effective leader makes sure things get done and also may be the one who does those things. This includes taking leadership, for example, in problem solving, getting the canoes loaded, starting dinner, and teaching participants how to kayak. The effective leader gives direction, and the direction is most likely followed.

A psychological leader motivates group members and self, encourages and supports group members, and tends to the emotional needs of group members and self and other relationship considerations. For example, when a participant begins to climb at a climbing wall, a leader might ask, "How do you like to be supported while you climb? Would you like us to be verbal with our encouragement and tell you about holds we notice? Would you like us to be quietly attentive and add our ideas when asked? Or what?"

Outdoor leaders need to perform all three of the leadership functions during a trip. While the responsible leadership job is not shared, by the end of a program or trip the participants may be doing a large portion of the day-to-day effective and psychological leadership jobs. If so, this frees the leaders to do deeper work. For example, leaders can work one-on-one to teach more skills. The responsible leader has the job of setting the tone and direction in order for this shared leadership to occur.

Sharing effective and psychological leadership can come about organically or can be delegated (Mitten and Clement 2007). For example, after the facilitator explains an activity, a participant might jump in and suggest a plan for moving forward. Or, on a wilderness trip, a participant might say, "How about if I work on tent setup-anyone want to help?" These are examples of participants sharing the effective leadership job organically (that is, without being told). As an example of a participant's sharing the psychological leadership job, someone might say to a group member starting to climb, "Juan, how do you want support from us? We're here for you and want to honor what you think works best for you."

When participants organically share the effective and psychological leadership jobs, be sure to acknowledge and encourage this behavior. This reinforcement validates both the process and the individual group member's behavior in the eyes of other group members. For example, a leader might say, "Sally, I'm delighted that you are thinking about the jobs we need to do to set up camp tonight, and while a few other people help Sally with the tents, could Isabella and Jason help me with dinner?" Later on in the program or trip when it has become a group norm for participants to share the effective and psychological leadership jobs, the leaders will need less and less to reinforce directives given by participants.

The more the effective and psychological leadership jobs are shared, the more the program or trip and the competencies and accomplishments can be shared by all the group members. One can compare this to drafting in a bicycle club or breaking snowshoe or ski trails. Each person takes a turn at the lead so that the work of leadership is shared and everyone is involved in the trip's success.

Figure 17.1 illustrates the functions and the relationship between leaders and group members. Leaders' functions are responsible, effective, and psychological leadership, while the functions of the group members are effective and psychological leadership.


Berne, E. 1963. The structure and dynamics of groups. New York: Grove Press.

Clarke, J.E. 1983. Who, me lead a group? Winston Press.

Mitten, D., and K. Clement. 2007. Skills and responsibilities for adventure education leaders. In Adventure based programming and education, eds. R. Prouty, J. Panicucci, and R. Collinson. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Lesson Plan


To draw on the students' past experiences and memories to aid in their understanding of the functions of leadership. This lesson also helps students experience the benefits of shared leadership.


As a result of this lesson students will be able to . . .

1. Affective: listen to others and value their experiences.

2. Affective: feel the impact of giving voice to their thoughts.

3. Cognitive: recognize the need for the three types of leadership.

4. Cognitive: describe the three functions or jobs of a leader and be able to systematically practice them to enhance individual group and community experiences.

5. Cognitive: be able to select and justify appropriate leadership behavior to increase collaborative leadership among group members.

6. Cognitive: develop more skills in meta-cognition, specifically in being able to watch themselves as they perform leadership functions.

7. Cognitive and affective: use the three functions of leadership to contribute to the development of a "caring group environment."

8. Cognitive and affective: understand that the more the effective and psychological leadership jobs are shared, the more easily the program or trip and the competencies and accomplishments can be shared by all the group members.

9. Cognitive and psychomotor: understand the process of journaling through application.


Two 50-minute sessions. Students journal between the class sessions.

Group Size

8 to 40


Indoors or outdoors


40 fleece, tennis, or other balls less than 4 inches (10 centimeters) in diameter
Assembled outdoor gear (the gear you might have in a base camp, including one or more tents, stove, cooking gear, and the like)

Risk Management Considerations


Student Preparation

Before the class, students read the Background about the three functions of a leader.

Instructor Preparation

No prelesson preparation needed

Lesson Content and Teaching Strategies

Set the stage for the first class session by describing breaking trail in the snow and how taking turns keeps one person from having to do the hard work of all the trailbreaking. If students can go out in the snow and take turns breaking a ski, snowshoe, or walking trail for each other, that would be ideal. During the other three seasons, if you have access to woods that have spider webs across the trails in the mornings, you can take turns breaking trail (getting stuck with spider webs) in that environment. If the outdoor component is not possible, tell a story about taking turns breaking trail or drafting on bicycles. Geese flying in a V-formation is another phenomenon that fits the concept. Students should get the idea that if we all take turns in the leadership position, there is less chance for any one person to become exhausted. At the same time, if all the participants are too tired to break trail and for some reason you all have to keep moving, the designated or responsible leader has to be able to break the trail.

Define and explain the three jobs or functions of a leader. After a short explanation, have students pair-share an experience they have had as a responsible leader or in a group in which there was a responsible leader. Then have students share a few examples in the large group to be sure that everyone is grasping the concept. Do the same for effective and psychological leaders. Have the students share both positive and negative experiences or examples of these three leadership concepts.

Sometimes it is hard for students to grasp the concept of only one responsible leader. For example, on an outdoor trip the head leader is always the responsible leader, even if the program uses the leader of the day (LOD) concept to give students leadership practice. Most people can understand that the head leader must remain the responsible leader because of liability issues, but the reasons are broader than liability. Participants can feel free to try new ways of being in a group, as well as new ways to be effective and psychological leaders, knowing that the responsible leader is their safety valve. Having a designated responsible leader helps keep the trip safe because the roles are clear. As an example, safety expectations and contracts cannot be changed just because the group members are in smaller groups and the responsible leader cannot be in all groups. Certain questions about safety will be referred to the responsible leader, even if the responsible leader asks for student input and opinions, again providing a safety net for the participants.

Describe organic psychological and effective leadership and how these can be recognized and reinforced by the responsible leader, as well as how the responsible leader can delegate psychological and effective leadership tasks. Organic leadership behavior occurs when a participant does an effective or psychological leadership task because she or he sees that it needs to be done rather than because she or he is told to do it. Leadership grows organically from the group members.

Activity 1: Leadership Conundrum

End this first of two class sessions with the following activity. Have the students queue up one behind another in a single-file line. Stand about 15 feet (4.6 meters) in front of the first person and face that person. Have about 40 balls 4 inches (10 centimeters) or less in diameter.

Tell the group members to walk toward you; the front person or leader must catch and hold the balls as you roll or toss them. The goal is for all the students to reach you without dropping any balls. Roll and toss balls moderately quickly so that the front-line leader has too many balls to hold.

Start over, telling the students that now they should figure how to share the leadership job of catching the balls and reaching their goal but that only one person can be out of line at a time. Usually the students will take a turn at catching a couple of balls and then quickly move to the end of the line. Then the next person will catch a couple of balls and move to the line's end. This way the students as a group will be able to catch all of the balls and reach you. Having the students stay in a line symbolizes the orderly or boundaried process of sharing leadership.

Processing Questions

  • What did you see happening during this activity?
  • What feelings came up for you during this activity?
  • What did you think about when the line leader was getting bombarded with balls?
  • How did you feel watching the line leader try to catch all the balls?
  • What did it feel like to all have a part in catching the balls?
  • How did having a part in catching the balls affect your task completion?

Relate this activity back to the trailbreaking example; discuss how sharing effective and psychological leadership functions can help trips run more smoothly, help all participants truly experience the success of the trip, and possibly keep the leader from becoming exhausted.

Activity 2: Journal Assignment

Have the students keep a journal between this class and the next, recording their behavior in the three leadership functions as well as behavior that they observe in others. Students should record positive as well as negative examples. Students turn in the journals before the next class so that you can determine if they are grasping the concepts. On trail, students can also keep a journal.

Activity 3: Fifteen (Plus) Ways to Be a Leader

At the beginning of the second class session, ask students to share some observations from their journal assignments.

Have students divide into groups of three to five people. Using the assembled outdoor gear, have each group prepare an in-depth skit. During the skit, each group shows at least five examples, some positive and some negative, of responsible, effective, and psychological leadership behavior (for the effective and psychological
leadership, show both organic and delegated). Because they use a great deal of gear, the skits tend to be authentic and detailed and to provide clear examples. For instance, students may set up camp showing how leadership functions might be displayed. Before they perform the skit, students write out what behaviors they plan to demonstrate. Students watching the skit keep track of the leadership behaviors they see. After the skit, compare the two records.

Activity 4: Leadership Letter to a Colleague

Students write a letter to a colleague about a trip, real or imaginary, telling the colleague about at least three examples of each of the functions of leadership as they occurred on the trip. At least two of the examples should be ones that the letter writer participated in. The student can have been either a leader or a participant on the trip.


The take-home message from this lesson is that if the leadership is shared in appropriate ways, students learn more about leadership, including judgment and decision making. Also a trip is usually safer, and the successes and failures are more completely shared by the participants.

Assessment of Learning

After their pair share, as students participate in discussion, assess whether they are grasping the concepts.
Students either in small groups or as a whole can compare what the skit performers intended to share and what the watchers observed.
Use the rubric provided in table 17.1 to assess the leadership letter to a colleague.

This is an excerpt from Teaching Adventure Education Theory: Best Practices.

More Excerpts From Teaching Adventure Education Theory