Impacts of a ropes course experience on a leadership development program

Leadership development programs, and the curricula written for these programs, are worthy of scrutiny. Recent research on leadership theory (Avolio, Walumba, & Weber, 2009; Kelliher, Harrington, & Galavan, 2010; Kolb & Kolb, 2005) suggests that leadership is a complex subject. It is further argued (Mitchell & Poutiatine, 2001) that experience is a preferred method for teaching complex subjects. This research supports incorporation of cooperative training methods that integrate learners’ experiences with the complex skills being taught. These leadership development and training programs include in their curricula many educational techniques, including simulations, case studies, experiential learning and outdoor adventure (Kelliher et al., 2010). Adventure education literature suggests that leadership is a meta-skill (Priest & Gass, 2005), which is an aptitude for soft skills, hard skills, and an understanding of the relationship between the two sets of skills. This literature maintains that experience is the best method for teaching meta-skills. The purpose of this study was to examine impacts of a ropes course experience as perceived by participants of a corporate leadership development program. Interpretive research of qualitative data from a small group interview summarizes participants’ various perspectives on their ropes course experiences. This research determined that the sample of participants felt that the ropes course experience did have an impact to their program. Specifically, ropes course programming appeared to serve individuals in various ways: to build confidence in participants, which is expressed as a transferrable leadership skill; to provide participants a break from the typical work environment, which allows individuals a potentially safe environment for experimentation and positive failure; and to illustrate the differences in leadership style and behavior of fellow program participants, which leads to greater empathy and a heightened level of self awareness. Suggestions for improvement of the ropes course experience in serving this population are offered by the interviewees. It is concluded from these suggestions that the value of a ropes course is enhanced significantly by the active and engaged presence of a facilitator to help bring out leadership lessons, and to encourage reflection and introspection.

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