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SEP. 14, 2017

Fear Not the “L-word”

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As any Outdoor Academy alum will attest, OA students practice a sometimes-dizzying profusion of customs and traditions.  Among the most time-honored of these is the ceremonial passing of the mantle of leadership from one student to another. Every evening from Opening Day to Final Circle, from 1995 to yesterday, the leader for that day announces her or his successor.

Yet despite these deep roots, our school has been uneasy with the idea that the OA is a school of leadership.  This apprehension is warranted.  Leadership, as it is too often practiced and taught in the Western intellectual tradition, is understood as the exercise of power over others practiced by Napoleons on their white stallions or corporate leaders engineering hostile takeovers.

In response to this conventional understanding of leadership, OA’s founding generation chose to adopt an unconventional title for its student leaders.  Rather than selecting a “Leader of the Day,” we designate an “Adasahede,” a Cherokee word that translates roughly as “guide.”  Serving as Adasahede is not a celebration of ego.   Leadership as practiced at the OA is a selfless act of community service.

The impulse that prompted the choice of “Adasahede” over “Leader of the Day” also prompted some concern among our faculty over our decision last year to introduce a Leadership and Ethics Seminar to the OA curriculum.  Indeed, one faculty member asked, “what if our students don’t want to be leaders?”

My response to this excellent question was that the OA’s Leadership and Ethics Seminar, piloted during Semester 43 and instituted last semester, embraces a nuanced view that understands leadership as an indispensable element of community life.  Rejecting leadership, according to this understanding, is indistinguishable from rejecting community…not an option at the OA.

Drawing primarily on Robert Greenleaf’s conceptualization of the ancient idea of “servant leadership” (see Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, 2002), on curricula developed by NOLS and Outward Bound, and on two decades of experience teaching and learning leadership here at the OA, our seminar examines four leadership roles, each of which is essential for building and maintaining a flourishing community.  We introduce our students to the leadership skills that make an effective “designated leader” (Adasahede, in OA parlance).  Our students also learn and practice the skills associated with effective “active followership,” “peer leadership,” and “self-leadership” (see John Gookin & Shari Leach, NOLS Leadership Educator Notebook, 2004).  Significantly, our approach to leadership insists that none of these roles is more important than any of the others for community health.  Finally, through classroom meetings and practicing leadership in our “lab” (community living on campus and in the field), our students begin their inquiry into which leadership roles feel most natural to them.

I have characterized our Leadership and Ethics Seminar as “new.”  In some ways, this is a fair characterization.  We have introduced new classes into our Community Living and Outdoor Education curricula.  Mostly, however, our seminar would be recognizable to every OA grad from Semester 1 forward.  This is because, whether we embrace the “L-word” or not, the OA is, and has always been, a premier school of leadership.

Roger Herbert, Outdoor Academy Director