How expeditions are shaping tomorrow’s leaders

By Honor Wilson-Fletcher, CEO of British Exploring Society

Teamwork- Future Leaders Blog, leadershipResilience, courage, grit and the ability to foster a sense of community. All qualities sought after in the workplace and for our leaders, but not easily learnt in a training course or from a TED talk.

So how can we gain these skills and put them into practice?

The charity I run, British Exploring Society, helps build essential skills for adult life as we increase the resilience and determination in the young people we work with.

I’m hoping what we’ve learnt over the past 85 years of the charity, and having seen our Explorers blossom as great leaders and public-spirited innovators, will be of interest to anyone seeking to understand and build their own approach to leadership.

Team building in new environments

The modern young Explorer defies expectations about the ‘kind of people’ who do things outdoors. We bring together young people from every area of society – from communities facing high levels of economic and social deprivation to those where expectations of success are high. Often, these people would never cross paths. With us they have to learn how to live together, and problem solve as a team, in their tents, canoes, up mountains and in the jungle.

They decide on their own adventures – not us – and when they lag behind, get ill or become homesick, still have to look out for each other. Great expeditions thrive where explorers forget what they think they know about each other, recognise and draw on the talent around them, and ask for help when needed.

Our programmes expose young people to entirely new life challenges and the vast majority return with increased self-belief, a tightly bonded group and a realistic understanding of what problem solving and ambition look like ‘in the field’.

Problem solving

Our expeditions have no set itinerary so Explorers are encouraged to take the lead, exchange ideas as a team and own their decisions. This kind of proactive behaviour and problem solving can challenge our young people’s expectations of themselves and help them to realise the skills they have to contribute.

“I learnt so much about the way I interact in a team and which roles suit me. I felt both mentally and physically challenged on expedition and it really developed me as a person,” explained Beth Fowler, who visited the Peruvian Amazon in 2019.

Developing resilience

Expeditions take place in remote and challenging environments which test young Explorers and their levels of resilience. When faced with new situations, such as how to stay clean for five weeks without running water, having no access to a mobile or using a machete to trek through the jungle, Explorers are often pushed to their limits, proving to themselves just how much they can tackle.

Christina Graham, who joined the Landmark programme in 2019 shared, ‘’You learn so many new things and skills you never thought you had, just by being somewhere new for a couple of weeks.”

Ensuring long-term impact

The long-term impact of our programmes is measured with research from former Explorers and Leaders using ‘My Compass’, a well-established impact measurement tool, and through research with University partners which reviews our impact over decades.

My Compass allows each Young Explorer to set goals around areas of learning or skill and self-evaluate their progress along their journey. The results are transformative! 69 per cent of Young Explorers reporting increased levels of confidence, a 60% increase in their ability to problem solve and a 74 per cent increase in making important decisions.

The wider society benefits from the adventurous, resilient, adaptable team players and leaders that we help develop.

During my time at British Exploring Society, I’ve seen first hand the impact on the lives of the amazing young people we take on expeditions.

One of the many great Explorers I’ve had the joy of working with is Amina. She radiated leadership potential, but also exhibited a lot of anxiety. She talked to us about her chaotic and troubled background before joining our 2018 Peruvian Amazon programme. She immersed herself in the experience, quickly showing her warmth and support for others in the jungle.

Amina surpassed all expectations, including her own, and returned with a broad range of skills, a clarity of purpose and an understanding of her own resilience. Amina has since signed up to join us in Siberia, where she’ll be able to apply her grit and new-found leadership skills on the winter ice of Lake Baikal. We hope Amina will be a Leader on future expeditions.

From decades of contact with our alumni we know that the impacts and benefits Explorers gain may become visible in a life over years, not months. Recently, I received a call from Marvin Rees, our president and the Mayor of Bristol. Whilst in isolation, he cheerfully shared that he’s been utilising communication skills he learnt whilst on expedition with us to Svalbard in 1991 to keep his leadership team briefed during the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s the first to point out a wide range of other life skills he acquired with us, but I was amused that ‘team expedition comms’ had proved so useful to him, in such a different setting, nearly 30 years on.

The ‘challenges’ we provide are not about physicality and fitness, instead the majority are reflective, focusing on adaptability, courage and communication when tired, frustrated, anxious and unsure. This is surely when we want our leaders to be most adept? When they are pushed hardest.

Honor Wilson-Fletcher About the author

Honor is CEO at British Exploring Society. She provides leadership of the charity and oversees the charity’s administration and financial management. She’s also worked in corporate roles and has had many non-executive Trustee roles, but is particularly driven by issues relating to youth development and equality, education and culture.

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