Teaching Leadership Through Storytelling on Wilderness Expeditions

By Eric Boggs

Jul 19, 2017

Sittng around a campfire
Photo by Oscar Manguy.

Instructor, University of Oregon faculty member, and speaker at the 2017 NOLS Summit Eric Boggs talks with us about how to use storytelling as a powerful way to teach leadership.

What do you mean by “storytelling”?

Storytelling has meant different things to me over time. Early in my career, if you had asked me about storytelling as leadership practice, I would have told you that “great leaders need to be able to tell great stories.” I think this fits with a lot of societal misconceptions about leadership—a bias towards charisma, motivation and stage presence.

These days, storytelling to me is thinking beyond weaving the yarns of our own “epics” and being open to the stories of others. Freeing our students on NOLS courses from the reductionist boxes we put them in. As humans we are discounting machines, and, however well-intentioned, we constantly put people into boxes based on what little we know of them. Stories allow us to break apart those boxes and see each other as the complex humans we are.

I think at its core storytelling is a way to learn expedition behavior (EB) and emotional intelligence, to realize that we are all experiencing an expedition differently. However old-school some of our founder Paul Petzoldt’s approaches were to leadership development, one of the things he was onto was expedition behavior, a concept that I think at its core had some early leanings of emotional intelligence and was a super progressive view of leadership at the time.

What happens with storytelling that makes it a good way to learn leadership?

Storytelling is a tool as ancient and as essential as the the campfires we sit around. We like to say “You had to be there”—storytelling takes us there. Our brains are literally wired for it. As a listener, similar sections of my brain are activated as that of the teller. What’s more, in a group of listeners, our brains are activated similarly, so we are sharing the experience in a way.

Neuroscience reminds us that we are not just thinking beings; we feel, and feelings have a disproportionate impact on our decision making. While we may be inclined to think about this as not inherently bad, I think it presents an opportunity as an educator. We have to learn to channel emotion to help relay critical concepts like risk management, and stories can help us do that.

We live through and by stories and often can’t differentiate between our own memories and the stories of others. Stories don’t just entertain or inspire others, they shape our own lives—so we should be mindful of how we tell them.

What impact do you aim for by framing leadership through storytelling?

I aim for nothing short of a transformation of the way that we think of leaders and leadership. As experiential educators and outdoor professionals, we pay great attention to planning our route, rationing our food, managing risk and designing the experience. I think we can do more to shape the way we tell of the story of our experience so we can understand how others are viewing a shared experience. These shared narratives have tremendous impact on the way our students make meaning of an expedition. It can be a powerful “Aha” moment to realize that we all experience “here” differently.

The concept “growth mindset” has been in vogue for the last couple years, and a mindset is inherently a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, our skills, our abilities. As an instructor of leadership, I am curious to know what stories you have about yourself. What stories can you tell about leaders you’ve followed or been inspired by? These stories are seminal to your own narrative arc as a leader.

There is a difference between a leader and leadership. Leadership means being as interested in the stories of others as I am in my own, understanding that everyone has a complex story, that story listening is as important as the telling. We’ve learned recently that gratitude is the key to resilience, and resilience is a mindset, so how can we promote that mindset? By sharing stories of gratitude, cultivate it through appreciation of place and people. That’s a transferable skill.

Group sits in a circle by a rocky lakeshore
Photo by Mauricio Clauzet.

What’s one method of storytelling you use?

I grew up in Evanston, Illinois on the northside of Chicago, during the Golden Age of Hip Hop—we bumped the Biggie Smalls and the Beastie Boys. Rap was my introduction to poetry and I continue to be captivated by the art. I am not good, but I love the lyricism. It is my solo-brainstorm, free-association journaling technique, which I will often share on a NOLS course, that leads to kind of a coffee shop, poetry slam vibe, which is a fun way to share stories. I have done a couple of short talks where I use it as my intro.

How has storytelling connected with some of your own growth experiences?

I think one of the greatest challenges of a NOLS course is coming back from the field. In the faculty story, I tell the story of coming back from a life-changing semester in Patagonia in 1999.

My mom picked me up in our teal minivan and asked “How was your trip?” I was paralyzed, I couldn’t explain, I felt to explain it casually would be to devalue it. Socially, I deferred to “It was rad, awesome, gnarly.” Or a wild tale or two—and I became aware that stories I was telling were reducing my own impression of my experience. On the last day of the expedition, there was a really severe injury. It was a traumatic experience for the group, but a small subplot in a rich narrative of the three-month-long expedition. I revisited my journals and recalibrated and started talking about what the trip really meant to me. This challenge is a universal moment for folks returning from transformational experiences.

How does thinking about leadership in this way help us be better leaders?

Not everyone views themselves as a leader, but everyone has experience with leadership. Not everyone sees themselves as storyteller, but everyone has a story—even if they don’t believe they have a story to tell. I think storytelling, specifically leadership storytelling, helps us access prior knowledge in order to build upon pre-existing knowledge about leadership and break down misconceptions.

I think at NOLS we are very action-oriented in terms of our imagination of leadership looks like. We default to command-control directive decision making schema when we think of leaders and leadership. Storytelling can help us understand leadership in a more nuanced perspective.

What’s more, stories help us understand the lives of others, they help us see the complexity of existence, that the lives and perspectives of others are equally complex as our own. This storylistening can help us unlearn judgment, even prejudice and bigotry. Storytelling helps us recognize emotion in others, feel with them and take perspective. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses “The Danger of a Single Story” in her popular TED talk and states: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Where in the outdoors do you like to go?

I love the Oregon coast and the Willamette River, where I surf, paddle, and bicycle. Every year I take a group of University of Oregon Students into the Three Sisters Wilderness on a program we call “WILD” —it’s a remarkable landscape for these student to begin their college career. Most important, Wallace Stegner coined the phrase “the geography of hope,” and that’s what Southeast Alaska is for me. The Tongass National Forest there is remarkable in terms of its wildlife, the old growth forest, the fishing, the First Nation culture. A place is itself a story—Southeast Alaska is probably the place that I hold most special in my heart for sea kayaking at NOLS.

Explore your leadership story on a NOLS expedition.

Written By

Eric Boggs

Eric Boggs began working for NOLS in 2001. He works in executive development for custom education clients, teaches Master Educator courses, wilderness medicine trainings and leads sea kayaking and backpacking expeditions all over the world. When not working for NOLS, he is a faculty member at the University of Oregon, in the College of Business, specializing in leadership development and experiential learning. Boggs is currently focusing his research on the intersections of leadership and storytelling, place based education, and critical pedagogy.

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