When Thompson Island staff members are not in the field, you’ll find them working their way through a stack of books and research papers related to the education and leadership principles, models, and frameworks that support Thompson Island Outward Bound programs.
Ellen Harris, Director of Thompson Island Outward Bound Professional (OBP) throws herself into this research with much of the same passionate enthusiasm that she brings to scaling the island’s Alpine Tower.
“In designing our OBP team building and leadership development programs we often refer to Ronald Heifitz and Marty Linsky’s books Leadership on the Line and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” she says. “Heifitz and Linsky describe Adaptive Leadership as a framework that helps individuals and organizations thrive in challenging environments.”
Adaptive leadership skills are vital in any industry. Ellen explains that these skills come down to knowing “how to lead when there is not an apparent ‘right’ way to go.”
For example, when there is a crisis, like the world financial markets shifting in an afternoon in 2008, no one knew strategically what to do. In cases such as these leaders still need to help their organizations move forward without knowing the ‘right’ answer (because in unprecedented situations there often isn’t one). To lead in unfamiliar situations a leader must learn to take the ‘balcony view’ and review what is happening ‘on the dance floor’ to have perspective, and see, ‘a next step.’
In OBP programs, to help professionals learn how to make decisions when they are in unfamiliar territory, Ellen and her team create experiences where no “right way” to proceed is apparent.
“We hope each participant, at some point during the program, will have an experience where they have no idea how to solve the challenge in front of them,” Ellen explains. For participants this moment could come while when they are working their way through a ropes course or during a program Initiative activity.
Instead of simply moving from point A to point B, Ellen will introduce a change, such as adjusting a route or equipment available. Then, the team must adapt to the new scenario. Although the task may initially seem impossible, by working together, sharing ideas, and discussing options Ellen says participants “hear, consider and assess different possibilities, come to ‘a next step,’ proceed, and thus, succeed!” They then reflect on what went well and different approaches that could be used in the future.
In Thompson Island’s OBP leadership development programs, Ellen and her team see the Adaptive and other leadership theories come to life as participants learn to lead through experience and succeed even in unfamiliar and challenging situations.