by Sean Williams
My question in this article is, who is actually in charge around here? What does being ‘in charge’ mean at NOLS as an organization? Do we practice the same kind of leadership and organization in town as we do in the field? As an instructor, what I want to imagine is this: what would it mean to be an instructor-driven school? Is this what we are already? Is this what we want to be? Fair warning to the faint-of-heart: this article is meant to be very positive, and very provocative. I want us to dream big, about leadership and about our school. I want us to take ourselves seriously.
At NOLS we claim to be leaders, not just in wilderness skills, but also in education and in leadership itself. I don’t think this is entirely because of the 4-7-1 or the LEN, as helpful as they may be, but because of instructors’ and staff’s experience with and genuine commitment to communication, and to our real belief in other people and in the importance of what we do. I’m pretty sure that our ability to structure, role model, and debrief student leadership in the field is well ahead of the curve in the culture at large. I almost always find that students’ expectations of ‘leadership’ are often quite one dimensional, entirely focused on the executive role, directive decision-making, and lonely responsibility. I believe that students’ leadership learning is much more holistic and goes farther and deeper than these expectations. It involves peer leadership, working as a group toward a goal, accountability, and trust. Leadership in the field is more rewarding, and usually higher performing, when there is real inclusivity, when leadership comes from all quarters, rather than primarily from the course leader or the leader of the day.
If I can structure a course and set the tone for communication in a way that helps students understand that leadership is much more than being directive and in charge, I consider that aspect of the course to be really successful. By successful, I mean possibly life-changing for the students, and perhaps, in a small way, game-changing for society at large.
With that in mind, I’d like to share a few thoughts about both the formal structures and informal attitudes regarding leadership within NOLS as an organization. Ideally, the structure and practice of leadership within the school ought to reflect, and even be primarily based on, our shared high level of experience and understanding about leadership as it is practiced in the field, within instructor teams and student groups. We think of ourselves as being on the cutting edge of leadership in what we teach and in how we run courses. To maintain our organizational integrity, we ought to be on the same cutting edge in town. I’m looking for a union of theory and practice between the quality of what we do in the field and how we organize ourselves throughout the school. My suggestion here is that in the field, the lateral leadership, from what we often, but inadequately, call ‘active followers’, is as important, and less recognized by students, than the more traditional, hierarchical leadership from the ‘leader.’ So what about in town?
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, for over two years since the idea first occurred to me. I’ve been observing how decisions get made, who’s involved, and, equally importantly, who feels involved. I think, at this point, that it’s a mixed bag, a somewhat confused combination of hierarchical models that are tried and true, and lateral practices that are hit-or-miss. A formal hierarchy, and informal practices about how to negotiate it, is a great strength in the field, and probably in town as well. We certainly share a belief that anyone at the school can have good ideas, and those in charge, from course leaders to the EDT, seem to try hard to solicit those ideas and to put them into practice. The goal of soliciting feedback and suggestions from those lower in the formal hierarchy is common, and taken seriously, I think. I’ve come to suspect, though, that in town, our hierarchy is more rigid, and our lateral leadership somewhat less functional and also less integrated, than they are in the field.
So what’s the deal with hierarchy at NOLS? Why do we have it? To my mind, hierarchy comes from ultimate responsibility. If someone’s at the top, they are finally responsible for everything: the buck stops here, as any course leader, parent, or national president knows. But at least at NOLS, and perhaps elsewhere, it’s not that simple. With all due respect to the Executive Director and the Board of Trustees, it’s not so clear where the top actually is.
My theory is, at NOLS, there are two “tops.” There’s a Big Picture top, and there’s a Direct Work top. The Big Picture starts at the Board, who carry a very long-term vision, and moves through the EDT, headquarters in Lander, to each branch, which organizes and sets up their operations so that instructors can run courses successfully. Meanwhile, the Direct Work top comes from exactly that – the direct work, in the field with students, of running good courses. That, as people often say, is ultimately why NOLS is here. That’s what the whole show is for. Those in the best position to evaluate, change, direct, or, in a word, to lead this Direct Work, are instructors. We instructors are the ones directly carrying out the ultimate point of what NOLS does, with the absolutely essential support of the whole branch and HQ system.
Inevitably, we instructors, focused on our detailed Small Pictures in each course, lack the big perspective and the knowledge of myriad operational details to directly lead the Big Picture. In an abstract sense, that’s why we need in-town and HQ staff. Equally inevitably, those not working in the field lack the constant feedback from how things play out on the ground, and the constant reminders of true priorities, which we instructors are closely tuned in to. This is why the large amount of crossover between field, in-town, and HQ faculty and staff is a huge strength. From the perspective of the priority of the Direct Work, instructor teams are “the top” of a hierarchy based on responsibility for what happens where the NOLS mission is carried out: in the field. From a Big Picture perspective, the Board and the EDT are ‘the top,’ responsible for leading the long-term vision and the whole international operation. I don’t really believe it makes sense to prioritize one ‘top’ over the other. In the end they’re both needed, and because it’s impossible to decide which is more important, I think we have to treat them as equally important.
I imagine, in fact I hope, that most people at NOLS would agree with this, at least in the abstract. I don’t think that the way we talk about responsibility, or organize supervision and decision-making, quite reflects it. While our teaching and practice in the field is quite lateral, flexible, and includes a highly intentional and carefully negotiated use of hierarchy between instructors and among students, our organizational structure as a whole seems to me to be heavily hierarchical, basically the same as the common corporate or business structures in the United States as far as I understand it. It includes regular attempts to solicit ideas from those lower in the hierarchy, but few cases of integrating those same people directly into decision-making, which is very different from just asking for ideas. Instructors are supervised, evaluated, given lists of expectations to meet, much like employees in a traditional corporate or industrial structure, who accomplish set tasks in exchange for an hourly or monthly wage.
Increasingly, instructors are provided with pre-determined ways to manage courses and teach curriculum. Given our contract-by-contract work system and fluctuating admissions problems, we instructors are highly vulnerable in terms of job security, and thus structurally disinclined to rock the boat or push for changes. In general the same is true of branch staff, up to a certain level in the hierarchy. We almost always describe ourselves as “working for NOLS.” This is true in the sense that NOLS writes our paychecks, but from the perspective of the Direct Work, in which instructors are ultimately responsible for the courses we run, all of the apparatus of NOLS branches and Headquarters in fact works for us.
So I’d like to imagine how NOLS might be organized if this dual perspective of leadership and responsibility were integrated into our structure. First off, any sharing of responsibility requires both parties to make big steps in genuinely understanding and valuing the others’ perspective. We instructors, as a group, could make big improvements in our understanding of the operational and financial details, constraints, and opportunities that make our courses possible. If we are essentially employees, then all this is above our pay grade, as we sometimes joke. But if all this actually works for us, and if we are ultimately responsible for how it plays out on our courses, we’d better have a good grasp of it, even if we’ve never worked in town – just like we expect anyone working in town or at headquarters who has never worked in the field to grasp the details and importance of what we do there. The transient, contract-by-contract, often unreliable nature of a NOLS career also does not support the mental and emotional investment required to take a (possibly unpaid) decision-making role beyond one’s contract dates. All this could change, if we wanted it to; all this could change if we decided to change the structure, and language, of leadership.
Those higher up in the hierarchy, who, to speak plainly, hold more power in many ways, would have to willingly change decision-making structures to integrate others. What if every committee discussing curriculum, long-term branch or school planning, risk management, or pay and benefits were composed of, say, 50% full- or part-time field instructors, paid their CL wage for an 8 hours workday? Why not? I would say it should also be genuinely valuable to look to those with little NOLS experience, to brand-new instructors, issue room assistants, and garden interns, and to expect that real leadership should come from anywhere at any time. After all, we certainly do this with our students and within our instructor teams, and we are regularly surprised by what comes from unusual sources.
None of this is revolutionary or unheard of. In the US, academic departments at universities are entirely self-organized and run, with virtually no oversight by university administration, who merely provide the infrastructure and logistics for education to happen. The professors I worked with as an undergrad and graduate student would not have tolerated being supervised as employees. A common corporate structure for large German corporations includes an equal and relatively convivial and supportive sharing of power and decision-making between stockholders, executives, and employee unions, quite different from the combative struggles over pay and benefits that unions lead in the US. On the face of it, there’s no reason why a supervisory and decision-making structure derived from for-profit US businesses should be used at a non-profit wilderness education school, especially one which is at the top of the field in teaching and understanding leadership.
The goal of the instructor-driven school that I’m thinking about would be to affirm and deepen the equal, non-hierarchical interrelationship between instructors who carry out and oversee the direct, on-the-ground, personal work of our mission with students, and administrators who oversee the bigger picture and carry out logistical, operational, and financial tasks to support the direct work. How might faculty and branch staff be motivated and invited to participate in planning and decision-making at the branch and HQ level, beyond just providing suggestions or feedback? Could this approach be more of a reflection of the kind of leadership we teach and practice in the field, with students and in high-functioning I-teams? I don’t know, and I’m just writing this as an instructor who’s willing to think big: about NOLS, about leadership, about how this whole show operates. I’d love to hear any reactions or continuing thoughts on this, from anyone.