Outdoor Leader – AMC Outdoors

June 3, 2009

At the tender and not-always-responsible age of 15, Rick Silverberg led a group of his peers on a hike into Connecticut’s Sleeping Giant State Park. It was uneventful—they all survived—and Silverberg found he loved the role. He then masterminded outing-club trips at the University of Wisconsin and took his first Mountain Leadership School (MLS) training in 1975. As an AMC instructor who’s groomed hundreds of leaders since then, he believes people aren’t necessarily born at the front of the pack, but they can be trained.

Admit it. When you hear about an outdoor adventure gone awry, it’s tempting to wonder, “What if it had been me leading this trip? Would I have done it differently than, say, Ernest Shackleton?” While it’s very easy to Monday-morning quarterback, true outdoor leadership, says Silverberg, requires mastery of both “hard” and “soft” skills.

The hard skills are the invaluable ones you’ve developed on your own: wilderness canoeing, route finding, map and compass, knot-tying, etc. The soft ones are communicating well, understanding group dynamics, making people feel safe, and thinking of yourself last. As intuitive as they may sound, “people can learn these,” Silverberg says.

Alex Kosseff, author of the AMC Guide to Outdoor Leadership, adds that the best leaders are those who tend to find themselves taking on informal leadership roles when they’re out with friends. Self-assessment is tricky, he says, but one way to know your potential is to ask yourself: “Have I got solid abilities—and do I still have extra energy left at the end of the day?”

Kosseff learned the hard way. His first experience was leading a rock climbing adventure before he had actually learned to rock climb. He says the better way to hone the soft skills is to set yourself up in roles that push your comfort level a little, but don’t “overextend your capacity.” Such experiential education gives would-be leaders the opportunity to respond repeatedly to challenging scenarios (not as challenging, perhaps, as Shackleton’s pack ice and killer sea leopards), until the behavior becomes instinctual.

Director of the New Hampshire Chapter’s Winter Workshop, Silverberg says like most of AMC’s leadership trainings, that course offers “learning opportunities coming in threes.” Because, as he describes it, “People hear and forget, see and start to remember, and then participate and understand.”

What else do leaders need? Silverberg never sets foot on a trail without his “10 essentials:” Map, compass, flashlight/headlamp, water and a way to purify it, extra food, rain gear/extra clothing, firestarter, pocket knife, first-aid kit, and sunscreen/sunglasses. Kosseff adds one more crucial item: “Empathy.” You must be able to assess and understand your group very quickly in order to make good decisions. And both experts agree that a more-than-adequate level of physical fitness is also vital to being a good leader.

While this is definitely not the question a leader should be asking, Kosseff loves “sharing something that’s been such an important part of my life and enabling others to have those experiences and gain those skills.” Silverberg, a born teacher, enjoys imparting information about the natural world as he leads hikes. He also has found that people who become leaders generally take on more responsibility throughout AMC and become better stewards of the outdoors. Leaders learn to think big, he says, evolving an attitude of: “I’m here to make sure we have a safe time” rather than “I’m here for myself.”

This varies quite a bit by chapter and by individual, but to lead New Hampshire Chapter trips, for example, candidates must complete training, then co-lead three trips with three different established leaders, taking on increasing responsibility with each. All three must agree that the candidate is ready for leadership. To be fully certified, three-season leaders must also have climbed half the New England 4,000 footers, or the equivalent.

“It takes a while,” says Silverberg. But, he says, the leader really has only two obligations: “One, be respectful of the environment and the members of the group. And, two, avoid disaster.”

Adds Kosseff, “You should be having fun, too.”

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