10/28/2011 12:56 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2011

About Leadership: The Great Outdoors

I don't know who originated the fad for taking middle and upper managers, or candidates for such posts, out of the office and into the woods for a week, but it has been very popular for quite a while now. Extreme versions of this have been the subject of several dramatic television documentaries, and may have inspired some of the survival-type reality TV shows.

Like many people, I was a big critic of outdoors-y courses without ever having experienced one. I felt that they were artificial, unnecessarily stressful for individuals, possibly discriminatory in a way that was inconsistent with the qualities we seek in assessing potential for success, and poor learning environments.

Some of these criticisms are valid. More than other courses there is a real potential for doing damage to individuals (and I don't just mean physical injury, though that too) in these courses. Sure, you can do harm in a classroom setting, but mostly the bad courses in classrooms just bore participants.

Still, over time I have become convinced that a well-designed programme, that takes people away from their normal work environment into completely artificial situations, can be very valuable. But they have to be thought through very carefully, run by very skilled and experienced individuals, and you have to be prepared to spend a lot of money on the course. So this is not about sending 12 people up a river with 4 canoes and seeing who comes back. It is about designing an environment for learning, self-awareness, and feedback. Ideally it also forms close bonds between participants. And it should be fun.

The outdoor course I experienced was designed for people who were already quite senior in the Company. Probably the organisers felt that they were developing in us aspects of senior peer team behaviour and cooperation, looking at strategic thinking in situations of stress, and ability to deal with problems of greater and greater abstraction. And it did do all of this. But the most important thing this course did for me was to provide a mirror of my own behaviour in the situations which were created. There is nothing as valuable to a senior executive as non-judgemental, descriptive feedback, yet there are so few opportunities to get this feedback in corporate life.

The course started with problems that were complex, but for which it was clear at the outset how to reach the solution. Certain bits of data needed to be accumulated (this involved using maps and compasses to pilot a canoe to points on the lake, in the dark), the data need to be assembled, equations developed and solved, and the results used to solve the problem. So a known problem, known solution, but one still has to solve it by working together.

When you have people of equivalent seniority, with no one put in charge by a company-sanctioned hierarchy, you test competencies that are important for senior teams in many real life situations in companies. And all of us need to ask ourselves, how do I contribute to the solution, am I behaving as a team member (when I am used to being the leader), how well do I know my own strengths and weaknesses so I can assume the role which maximizes my contribution? These are important questions for self-examination.

The course moves on to problems in which we know what the problem is, we know that there is a way of solving the problem, but we have to work out, through our own learning and actions, how to find that solution. So a more complex type of problem and one we encounter all the time in business.

Here I want to bring out another important feature of the course. In working the problem, we found ourselves stuck in a particularly nasty mess regarding strategy, its communication, and its implementation. Here the organisers were able to just call a time out, and we could sit in a room and say 'Now look at this mess we are in. Isn't this just the exact situation in which we often find ourselves? So let's take the luxury of being on the course instead of being in our offices, to think about how we got here, and how we get ourselves out of this mess.' This is a great situation for learning.

Finally, we tackle problems of the most difficult kind. These are the situations where we don't know what the problem is, or even if there is one. There are only events, and from these events we must consider how to act most effectively in the interests of our company. How do we organise ourselves to respond to what is happening, how do we sort out red herrings from matters of import, when do we take bold action, when do we wait a bit to see how things unfold? And if we have waited too long, how do we recover our position? This is the real world made artificial, contained but still very involving (I don't think anyone in these situations was able to step back and behave as if it was a game rather than something that commanded their full attention).

How do we learn about our own behaviour in this sort of course? In part, because there are a number of very skilled psychological professionals present throughout, taking frequent time-outs with us as individuals and in small groups to talk over what has just happened, our reactions and learning. As such people do, they quickly develop our confidence to talk to them privately about interactions, performance, and concerns for others.

That is during the course. But throughout the week, videotaping of the proceedings takes place, with staff members wandering through all the different activities. It is amazing how oblivious to this we become after a while.

At one point in the week, I was approached by three of the participants who had become very upset about the behaviour of one of the others. 'Listen, you're his friend, so sit down with him and talk to him about this, because otherwise we think it would be best if he took a walk in the mountains and didn't come back for a few days'.

Well this is not an easy thing, having a heart to heart talk with someone you know well, but have to go back to work with the following week. Still, after I spent about an hour thinking about how to do it, I sat down in a room with Mike and we talked. Intensively. Later, one of the course staff said to me, 'Wait until you see the tape of your discussion with Mike' and I said 'How could there be a tape, only the two of us were in the room?' 'No, I was there sitting on the sofa the whole time'. We were so completely absorbed in the conversation that neither of us had the slightest idea we were being recorded.

About a month after the course ended, I got a video tape in the mail. About an hour long, it had been excerpted from the extensive taping that had been done during the week to show me in different situations. With no one else present, I took this into a small room and played it, watching myself, seeing what I liked and what I hated about my own behaviour as the camera caught it. Descriptive, non-judgmental feedback. We all need it, and we need to have our minds open to learn from it.

About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?