Picture a leader in your mind.
Maybe you're imagining a lone individual singlehandedly making decisions and wielding authority.
Or, maybe you're thinking of someone completely different—like your friend who avoids the spotlight, but always has their eyes open for places to help.
Which one’s a “real” leader? Of course, the answer’s both—and more.
A core part of NOLS’ leadership curriculum are the 4 leadership roles.
- Self leadership: Taking responsibility for your impact on the group and doing your share. For example, eating well and getting enough sleep so you're ready to contribute.
- Peer leadership: Working toward the group’s goals outside of a hierarchical leadership structure. For example, giving your friend advice on how to pack their backpack.
- Active followership: Supporting a designated leader and the group’s goals by giving input, respecting the plan, and staying engaged. For example, asking for clarification about the map so you understand the route you’re taking.
- Designated leadership: Taking responsibility for the group’s goals and how they’re achieved while in an “official” role. For example, being a supervisor at work.
With these four roles, at any given moment in any group, you're participating in leadership.
At first, it can feel odd—not to mention messy—to think about four leadership roles all going on simultaneously in a group. But there are a lot of benefits to this framework.
The main benefit I zero in on when I’m teaching this concept is shared responsibility.
Sharing Responsibility—or, making sure you read the map
Walking in the back of the hiking group, it’s easy to put your head down and ignore your surroundings. It's relaxing, even, knowing that the folks in front, the ones who volunteered to navigate for the day, have everything under control.
That is, until two hours later when the leaders tell the group they’ve lost the trail and you have no idea how far you’ve come or when, exactly, you got off track.
A few people were delegated the responsibility of map reading in an "official" sense, but in reality, it’s up to everyone to get to camp—or finish the project, organize the meeting, or win the soccer game.
Of course, if everyone's trying to do the exact same thing, it can get messy—imagine if everyone tries to cook dinner at the same time using one camp stove. But the whole group doesn't need to do the exact same tasks. They can follow along the landmarks on the trail or keep track of how long they've been walking.
When decisions are left to just one or two designated leaders, it’s easy for the group to stray. But when group members understand their different roles and live up to them, the entire group moves forward.
Accountability, Buy-in, and Inclusion
As a designated leader, it can be a relief knowing you don’t have to take on everything yourself—you might make the final decision, but you don't have to do it alone (read more: styles of decision making).
This framework also helps you stay accountable to your group: in order for them to support you, it's your job to make sure they have the resources and information they need to help accomplish the goal, whatever it might be.
As an active follower, it’s easy to buy in to the outcomes of the group because you’ve engaged in the decision making—you’re invested in the outcome. More importantly, you’re a part of making that happen.
Finally, this leadership framework opens the door to a more inclusive leadership structure—one that values and utilizes diverse strengths and styles.
Leadership isn't about fitting into a single mold—it's about taking your skills, the role you're in, and what's needed at that moment, and combining them to make your own signature style.
Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber