Expedition Leadership Development

This resource is designed to assist expeditions leaders, new or experienced develop and deepen their thinking about theirr expedition leadership development journey, their behaviours and self development.


The resource is the result of a research project undertaken in 2021 to look at expedition leadership behaviours, the findings of that research provide expedition leaders with some thinking and opportunities for development.


The findings from a series of interviews with a range of expedition leaders, some novices, and others hugely experienced in a range of expedition types, from eductaional, commercial, scientific, adventurous, show that expedition leadership behaviours are built through developing a "Polymathic " approach to leadership, by developing "range", building a depth of knowledge across a broad breadth of skills, experiences and attributes,driven by an internal motivation to become better, and being able to intergrate the knowledge and experiences, finding the connections between them and encouraging links and intergrting them in practice.


The research also found that role models play an important role in the development of expedition leaders, giving opportunities for practice and to help leaders find the connections and intergrate better, this combined with a growth mindset helps leaders to learn reflectivly as they buidl a wide portfolio of skill and experiences.


This resource is designed to help expedition leaders and organistions that employ them, by providing some thoughts and practical exercises that help as a model for better practice and to help understand the role of expedition leadership, it also has applications for anyone looking to develop their leadership behaviours or understanding.


James Dyer




Role models have been shown to be powerful mediumsin translating a persons internal motivation into the opportunty to live out their dreams.


Studies in sport shows that role models  that have similar attributes, from similar backgrounds and who are easily accessible to people are more influential than those that are seen as just inspirational or who are not from similar backgrounds.


And in business it has been found that role models are a significant factor in entrepreneurs starting successful companies.


the right role model, or mentor can be a possitive influence on an expedition leader, at both the begining of their careers and as an ongoing mentor/ coach. 


Expedition leaders should look for these mentors ,who can help them discover their values, reflect on their lives and journeys and help them to find the intergration of their knowldge and experiences.


Expedition organisations could develop mentoring schemes to support early career, as well as the experienced leaders refine and develop thier reflection on their behaviours. THe research found that experienced leaders find connection easier through reflection, so leaders need ongoing, in career support systems to aid development.




Awaya, A. McEwan H, Heyler D, Linsky S, Lum D, Wakukawa P. (2003) Mentoring as a journey ,Teaching and Teacher Education, Vol19, Issue 1, P45-56



Decision making has long been identified as a key element in outdoor and adventure sports coaching, working in dynamic environments where leader’s awareness and decisions are key to safety, skill and personal development.

Expedition Leaders work in dynamic environments and with dynamic humans, these create, along with the situations presented by the conditions, location and activity, opportunities for chaotic environments, complex and unpredictable behaviours and volatile and uncertain outcomes.


Research has found that making decsions differs between Novice and Experienced people, novices tend to lean on their training and need to think through a decision, maybe check it before making it, where as experienced leaders can quickly appraise a situation, measure it against similar experiences and outcomes and come to a decsion quicker, they are more likely to sense the right course of action rather than have to think it through.


Training leaders to make better decision in this more Naturalistic way could include exercises in decsion making, scenario based training, and heping leaders review previous decsions and how they made them, how did they make it? How did it feel? what was the outcome? 




Collins, L. & Collins, D (2013). Decision Making and risk management in adventure sports coaching. Quest, 65(1), 72-82.

Collins, L. Collins, D & Grecic, D. (2015).  The epistemological chain in high level adventure sports coaches. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning. 15:3, 224-238.

Collins, L & Collins D (2019). Managing the cognitive loads associated with judgement and decision making in groups of adventure sports coaches: a mixed methods investigation. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning

Dreyfus S, (2004). The Five Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition, Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, V 24 No 3, P177-181

Gass, M & Priest, S (1997), Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming, Human Kinetics, USA

Klein G (2015) A naturalistic decision making perspective on studying intuitive decision making, Journal of Applied research in Memory and Cognition 4(3); 164-168



This would sound pretty obvious to most people, an expedition leader needs to have a range of skills, they need to be technically proficient, have good inter and intra personal skills, be envrionmentally aware, understand others and have a positive mndset focused on those they are looking after.


The British Exploring Society outlines 13 skills/ attributes required by their leaders-

  1. Experience:
  2. Values:
  3. Adaptive capacity:
  4. Professional Judgement skills:
  5. Critical decision making skills:
  6. Reflective practice Skills:
  7. Resilience:
  8. Emotional Intelligence/inter-personal skills:
  9. Leadership:
  10. Personal philosophy on expeditionary learning:
  11. Coaching:
  12. Facilitation:
  13. Technical knowledge: 


An expedition leader needs to be a "Jack of All Trades", they need to be an expert generalist, not a single domain specialist.

A leader with a Single domain expertise (climbing) or a predominant domain expertise (desert expeditions) is likely to be good in very familiar or recognisable situations and contexts, where as someone who has multiple skills sets is likely to be better off and more comfortable in more unfamiliar, chaotic and unpredictable environments.


Polymathic leadership theory suggests that leaders with high levels of knowledge in a broad range of subjects can be more effective, but it is the way that a leader intergrates these in their practice, finds links between their knowldge and skill that makes them a even more effective leader.


This doens't just apply to gaining lots of qualifications, though qualification is important, it is having the depth of knowledge and the ability to use these skills side by side that identify a polymathic leader.


To become a more effective leader in expeditions, focused development on increasing range would be desired, mentors and coaches can help with assiting in finding the intergration, but the leaders need to purposefully gain qualifications, build a portfolio of experiences, read around subject of interest and be encourged to broaden their knowledge. 


Organisations can offer CPD opportunities alongside a coaching and mentoring programme for leaders, including peer coaching, which can help build a polymathic leadership culture. This CPD can be on technical subjects, but also on envrionmental, interpersonal, or leadership itself.




Araki, M. E. (2018). Polymathy: A new outlook. Journal of Genius and Eminence, 3(1), 66-82

Araki, M. E. (2015). Polymathic leadership: Theoretical foundation and construct development. (Master’s thesis), Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Mees, A, Sinfield, D, Collins, D, Collins L (2020) Adaptive expertise- a characteristic of expertise in outdoor instructors? Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy.

Kahneman, D & Klein G.(2009) Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A failure to Disagree, American Psychologist, 64, no 6, p515-526



Related to polymathic leaderships it is important to recognise how people gain skills.


Building "Range" into an expedition leaders portfolio is important but also so is the opportunity to think about how a leader gains this experience.


Research has identified that novices need to act like “sponges” and by doing so they process and assimilate the learning by then relating it to real world situations, this is a directed form of learning. Experienced learners become more self-directed, they understand their own learning processes better, whereas novices are in some ways, learning to learn.


Expedition leaders should be encourged to think about not only developing their portfolio of skills and knowledge but also to undertand "How" they learn, this will help with the intergration of knowledge domains and therefore their behaviours.


Thinking about areas such as responsibility, empathy, personal motivation will also encourage a rounder expedition leader.

Leaders should be caucious of developing skills and experience in just one domain of activity or environment, this leads to becoming expert in one area, and potentially can cause a lak of self awareness of skill level and be unable to transfer to other environment or activities. 


Expedition Organisations can help with this skill development by providing broad learning opportunities; trainee and assistant schemes, or career progression opportunities for leaders to progress for example. 


The table below outlines some areas for consideration of skills and knowledge that expedition leaders can develop in-


Skills& Knowledge – expedition leadership

Skills & Knowledge – Related to environment or type of expedition


Technical skill for activity- climbing, rope, SCUBA, paddling

Group management

Environmental specific knowledge- desert, mountain, arctic, jungle, water, space

Inter & intra personal skills

Weather in context of environment/ Effect on activity


Safety & risk management- specific to activity or environment.

Instructional or teaching skills

First aid related to context ie snakebite/ heat & cold injury

Decision making


Weather- general knowledge of principles and forecasting


Leadership – styles & personal philosophy


Safety & risk management principles


Physiology & anatomy/ performance


First aid & Medical






Daley, B (1999) Novice to Expert: An exploration of how professionals learn. Adult education Quarterly, Vol 49, No 4, p133-147

Dreyfus S, (2004). The Five Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition, Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, V 24 No 3, P177-181

Collins, L. Collins, D & Grecic, D. (2015).  The epistemological chain in high level adventure sports coaches. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning. 15:3, 224-238.

Collins, L & Collins, D. (2012). Conceptualizing the adventure sports coach. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 12(1), 81-93.



It is very easy to say that to become an expert in something it is just a matter of gaining experience, even Broadwell (1969) whose “4 stages of Competence “model is regularly used as the model for demonstrating developing expertise, suggests that mastery and increased performance develops over time, it takes time and experience to develop into unconsciously competent in a skill.



Becoming a better expedition leader is not all about experience, but experience allows leaders to develop and learn, intergrating their skills and knowledge and testing themselves across a range of opportunities.


Encouraging experience is important, but encouraging planned and broad expeeriences as part of a progresssion route to becoming a better leader, doing it intentionally means that novices can develop into experienced leaders, having been supported, given opportunities for learning and be able to gain the requisite skills and the knowledge of when to use them, quicker.


This experience has to be broad, it has to encompass a range of roles, increasing responsibility and across different types of expeditions and groups, organistions can help with thsi by providing these developmental opportunities and career progression programmes, thi can also lead to loyalty and returning leaders, benifiting the organistion and the clients/ participants.



Brazier, M & Grey, T (2005). Youth Expedition Leader Development. Young Explorers Trust.

Dane E (2010) Reconsidering the Trade-off between Expertise and flexibility, Academy of Management Review 35, no 4, p 579-603

Donkin, W. A (2006). The Philosophers Stone of Expedition Leadership. Author House, UK




Personal motivation plays a huge role in why expedition leaders want to become expedition leaders, some of this may be for selfish reasons (to travel, climb a particular mountain, to look cool etc) but for many it is deeper than that (faciltate other experience, do something good for the world, broaden horizons etc) All are valid reasons for wanting to do it.


It is these personal motivatins that also make leaders good at what they do, a desire to improve, to become better, to push their limits have all been found in expedition leader studies, so they provide a strong personal connection with development of leadership.


Developing what Carole Dweck would call a "Growth Mindset" is key to the dvelopment of better leaders, Leaders who conciously want to get better, who want to search out new experiences , learn new skills, build their knowledge,a nd to use all of this is making themselves abetter leader.


Growith Mindsets are encoruaged through developing confidence, improving self talk, developing opportunities to learn and a positive outlook on life,personal ability and future ambitions. One ofthe best words for a positive mindset is "YET!" - "I dont know that.....YET!" I am not good at that......YET!, " Im not sure i can do that....YET!", it opens up the opportunity for development.


Polymathic leadership and growth mindset go hand in hand, a leader who looks for new opportunity, who is positive in knowing that they are not there YET, who puts the effort into learning more is a leader who finds connections and activly learns and develops.


Organisations looking to develop their leaders should be encoreging the develpment of growth mindsets, resilience and polymathy amongst their leaders, regadless of skill, experience or or position in the organisation.



Galloway, S. (2002) Theoretical cognitive differences in expert and novice outdoor leader decision making: implications for training and development, Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, Vol 2:1, P19-28

Dweck C (2007) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books

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© James Dyer