How the Wilderness Lets Us Be Our Best Selves [Q&A]

By Shelli Johnson

Mar 4, 2016

In this post, life coach, Brooks Range Backpacking - Adult graduate, and future NOLS parent Shelli Johnson talks about how the wilderness creates opportunities to develop resilience for everyday leaders. You can read her other post on the NOLS Blog, A Leader and Parent Reflects on Her Brooks Range Course.

Walking in the Wilderness Photo by Sonja Guina.

Why do the outdoors work well as a place to develop leadership?

The wilderness and nature do so much of the heavy lifting. Developing leadership, facilitating self reflection and solitude, or improving teamwork in a conference room or other indoor setting may be valuable, but compare that to a setting where people are surrounded by the natural world, and it really is no contest.

When you’re in the outdoors, there are many things that can’t be controlled. This is how it is in life and leadership, too.

Tell us about the work you do now as a life coach and leadership development facilitator.

I am a certified life and leadership coach. I describe my work in this way: someone who wants to, or has to, climb a tall mountain—i.e., make, or endure, a big change in their life—will often enlist me as a coach to help them make the climb.

Often I get "called in" when the person already en route up the mountain, but they hit a particularly difficult patch and feel they can't go it alone. Rather than bailing and giving up on the climb, they hire me as their coach. I'm not a helicopter that gets called in. I'm not in the rescue business. Rather, people hire me to help them lean in and stay and persevere through the hard part(s) of their life.

How does wilderness inform your work?

Leading uphill Shelli leading on an Epic Adventure. Photo courtesy of Shelli Johnson.

In my experience, when it comes to leadership development—whether it’s being a better leader in life or work—there is no greater setting than the wilderness, and no greater platform than an adventure.

In the wilderness, feedback is immediate. On day three of an adventure, when we’re out in the mountains and there’s a storm, we don’t get to say, “You know, I don’t like these conditions, so I’m going to home.” Instead, we have to deal with the adversity in real time. We develop our social and interpersonal skills in what often turns out to be the ultimate team-building exercise.

When we cross a raging river, or scale a mountain that has a lot of exposure, we experience fear. We have to muster the courage to take those steps toward growth under tremendous pressure. We have to confront our own saboteurs and the negative self talk that try their best to hold us back. These emotions are the same emotions we experience at home and at work. This practice at developing our emotions under pressure, in the wilderness, not only grows us, but also builds resilience. We return to the frontcountry better equipped for future challenges.

What is important for your clients to learn in the wilderness?

One of the most important things I hope my clients will learn is how to be compassionate toward themselves. When we are struggling up a steep hill (whether it’s a mountain on an epic expedition or a challenge in our personal life), it’s important to be kind to ourselves through the struggle, rather than critical. The difference is profound, and practicing this is some of the most worthwhile work we can do.

How do you think someone becomes a leader?

River Crossing in Alaska River crossing in Alaska. Photo by Shelli Johnson.

By choosing to be one. I was giving my keynote presentation to some leaders in Chicago last fall, and afterward, someone asked “can non-leaders go on your Epic adventures?” I thought this was an interesting question because I think every one of us is potentially a leader, it’s just a matter of choosing to be one. It also made me think that we can be a leader even if our higher-ups don’t call us one.

Leadership also requires being uncomfortable. I don’t think you can be a leader if you’re unwilling to be uncomfortable and courageous. I like to say that “leaders are not made under blue skies.” When it’s blue sky—when there’s certainty—there’s not a huge need for leadership. When there is uncertainty, that’s when we need people to step up and inspire us to trust them and follow them.

When was there a challenging leadership moment in which the lessons you learned at NOLS were helpful?

There was one day on our NOLS course where we weren’t sure we were lost, but we definitely were not clear about where we were. Demoralized, we removed our packs and got out the gigantic topographic maps. We looked at features of the land that were around us and tried our best to match them features on the map.

We spent about an hour not figuring out where we were. A couple of us grew impatient, myself included. I just wanted to move, in any direction. One of my coursemates stood up and looked at me and said, “With all due respect, I don’t think it’s a waste of time to figure out where we are, so we can figure out where to go.”

I’ve never forgotten those words. They were so wise, not only in that moment, but in life. If we don’t have clarity about who we are and our position, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to orient ourselves and our life in a way that will help us realize our dreams.

I believe firmly that self awareness is at the root of being our best self, of imagining our best life, and at the root of effective leadership. In order to proceed with any expectation of success, we must first know who we are and where we’re at.

What motivates you to share your leadership lessons with others?

I know people who have died at ages 52, 23, 43, 38. They all lived life to the fullest and then died suddenly, without notice. The truth is, none of us knows how many years we’ll live. I’ve worked very hard during the last six years to create a life that I love. If I live to be 95, I have only 17,500 days left. That sounds like a lot, and yet it’s not enough. I do not want to squander even a single day of whatever remains of my life.

I think as a result of living this way, I’m inspired to help others to not squander their lives, and motivated to help them to live on purpose, and with no regrets. All this said, I don’t think I’m the coach for everyone. But if you’re looking at your life and wanting to crank it up and make some serious changes that will help you love your life, then I’m looking for you.

Shelli with Brooks Range Backpacking Group NOLS Alaska Shelli on her NOLS course in the Brooks Range. Photo by Shelli Johnson.

See Shelli's course, Brooks Range Backpacking - Adult.

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Written By

Shelli Johnson

Shelli Johnson is an entrepreneur, life and leadership coach, leadership development facilitator, keynote presenter, writer, personal trainer and adventure guide. She is also a NOLS graduate and a certified Wilderness First Responder. Her current business, which she views more as a movement than a business, is Epic Life, at She coaches leaders from throughout the U.S., and offers programs that bundle coaching with wellness and a guided Epic Adventure. Shelli lives in Lander, Wyoming, with her husband, Jerry, and their three sons, Wolf, 17, Hayden, 15 and Fin, 9. Email Shelli at coach[at] to learn more.

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