Writing a Book About Leadership With Mark Brown, of Outward Bound

A man wearing glasses and smiling at the camera
Mark Brown

What does it take to become a great leader?

There are many great books on this topic. One book I read recently is Outward Bound Lessons to Live a Life of Leadership by Mark Brown.

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From Ohio, Brown has worked with the learning and leadership organisation Outward Bound for over twenty years and has served as a transformational coach in many industries.

In this podcast episode, he explains:

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I start by asking Mark to explain what the organisation Outward Bound is and how it helps aspiring leaders.


Transcript Below

Bryan Collins: Mark, if you could start by giving me a bit of background information about what exactly Outbound Bound is for people who aren’t from the U.S and how it’s helping people today.

Mark Brown: Sure, Outward Bound was actually founded by a German born educator named Kurt Hahn. He first founded a school in Germany that’s called Salem. When Hitler came to power, Hahn challenged Hitler and was thrown in jail. He had some influential relationships that got him out of jail and he ended up immigrating to Great Britain.

Mark Brown: He launched a second school in Gordonstoun in Scotland, I believe. He ended up educating a lot of the British aristocracy, including Prince Philip. When World War II erupted, Hahn was asked to try to develop a program to give young British seaman enough experience and confidence in themselves to survive in the lifeboats when their ships were being sunk in the North Sea.

Mark Brown: That was the birthplace of Outward Bound. Outward Bound is a nautical term which is when a ship leaves the safety of its Harbor and it’s heading Outward Bound. Originally Outward Bound was a nautical school. It came to the United States in the early 1960s, the Colorado Outward Bound school was the first school.

Mark Brown: They are independently chartered organisations. There’s an international organisation still, and then the United States, there’s Outward Bound USA, which is the U.S chartering organisation. There are independent schools and centres that are all connected through this certification organisation.

Mark Brown: In the United States, Outward Bound quickly spread into the vast wilderness areas that are here. It really became known as the wilderness school. Originally it was young, in the ’60s it was Young Males. The first women we’re in the late 1960s, the first school that allowed women was the Minnesota Outward Bound school, that later became the Voyager School where I worked for many of my years.

Mark Brown: It has evolved into many things, but essentially Outward Bound is an organisation that uses mostly the wilderness, but with organisations and schools, it’s changed. It’s changed or moved away from just being in the wilderness. It uses urban areas as well now, but it uses that experience to really develop character in people, grit, leading through adversity and helping.

Mark Brown: Outward Bound’s intention is to create a more empathetic, compassionate human being that’s willing to serve a greater good. That’s the genesis of the organisation. It has grown in all kinds of ways, adapted itself. It’s also birthed a lot of other organisations like the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Mark Brown: NOLS in the United States was started by former Outward Bound instructors. The Association for Experiential Education, I think you could make the argument for anyone who’s ever been on a ropes course anywhere that, that came out of the original training of getting young seamen up in the high masts of sailing ships and things.

Mark Brown: Outward Bound has impacted experiential education. It’s really the grandparent, if you will, of the whole experiential education movement. Now, the work I did for well over a decade was almost all organisational change work.

Mark Brown: Leadership development, team building, communication programming, and some of it was wilderness based, some of it was actually internal based, but it uses the same principles.

Bryan Collins: One of the wilderness based activities that stood out was climbing Kilimanjaro. I think that’s mentioned in the book.

Mark Brown: Yeah, so that was actually an organisation that was started by an Outward Bound alumni who did the mountaineering course in California when she was a young woman. The lessons of her experience impacted her significantly to a point where she ended up launching this organisation called Outdoor Afro, with the intention to get African-Americans to lead other African-Americans out into wilderness areas.

Mark Brown: A group of her leaders that she had trained, decided to plan their own trip to Kilimanjaro, where they became the first solely African-American group to summit Mount Kilimanjaro.

Bryan Collins: One thing that struck me was Outward Bound’s motto, which comes from the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem Ulysses. Could you just describe the motto for people please?

Mark Brown: Right, so the motto is to serve, to strive and not to yield. That is an adaptation from the Tennyson poem. It really is the backbone of everything that Outward Bound does. Those are really their ways of thinking or operating in the world.

Mark Brown: When I set out to write the book, Outward Bound: Lessons to Live a Life of Leadership, I was struck by how everyone I was talking to, interviewing, referenced the motto, how much it had impacted. These are not all former leaders of Outward Bound. Many of them were participants.

Mark Brown: They had come on corporate courses or leadership development courses and we’re talking 20, 30 years later they’re quoting that motto. I think it has a strong impact on people.

Bryan Collins: What does it mean to serve, to strive and not to yield? What I think is interesting is this is how you structured the book as well.

Mark Brown: The book is, the way I describe it is, it’s the impact that former leaders and participants in Outward Bound have had in the world. Really looking at how Outward Bound affected them, and then how they took those lessons out into the world.

Mark Brown: When we were interviewing and we kept hearing references to serve, to strive and not to yield. The book is a co-publication with Outward Bound. I did all the interviewing and writing, and they were also helping guide the writing of the manuscript.

Mark Brown: As we were talking, it made logical sense that, that became the framework of the book. When we talk about serving, we’re really looking to be an impactful leader in the world. To make sure that you’re serving a higher purpose than just the, ‘this structure of an organisation’, if you will.

Mark Brown: Certainly businesses need to make money. Businesses need to make profit. There’s not a belief here that, that’s not part of this. I think it’s both and, and what we know of lots and lots of researchers that have gone at this is businesses that pull this higher sense of purpose, leaders who pull people to this mission of serving others, create better workplaces.

Mark Brown: Workplaces where their workers will actually produce more, where there tends to be less accident rates, better health outcomes, turnover goes down. All these things come from creating a sense of mission. One of the people that I talked to in the focus, the founder of the Home Depot, Arthur Blank.

Mark Brown: He talked a lot about creating that sense of mission when the Home Depot was new and young. I did training within Home Depot for Outward Bound and I saw it firsthand. I saw this passion, they call it bleeding orange. Home Depot people were so passionate about the work, and that came right from the founders.

Mark Brown: It was their own passion. That showing up to serve their communities, to serve their employees, to make a good place to work. Arthur Blank’s continued that. He used the same framework. He owns the Atlanta Falcons now and he also owns the Atlanta United soccer team.

Mark Brown: He uses the same framework to lead those organizations as he did the Home Depot. His foundation work, he’s really working to eradicate poverty in Atlanta where he’s headquartered. It’s the same approach. It’s that service orientation.

Mark Brown: There’s that saying that to whom much is given, much is expected. I think that, that’s a reflection of serving as a leader. On a classic Outward Bound course I mean, that’s what you’re doing, because you’re out there with the participants.

Mark Brown: If it’s pouring down rain in the wilderness, you’re getting soaking wet with them. If it’s hot, if there are mosquito’s swarming you, if you’re in a swamp, if you have a 30 mile paddle day or a 20 mile hiking day, you’re right in there with them.

Mark Brown: You are not only going through the adversity of the expedition, but you’re in service of making sure that they stay safe, that they learn the skills that they need to learn, etc. That really is the framework of that first part to serve.

Mark Brown: I don’t know if you want me to continue with the rest of the …

Bryan Collins: Yeah, it’s the second part to strive. You have an interesting model inside of that.

Mark Brown: Yeah, and so striving really looks at one, getting crystal clear about as a leader what your values are. Standing in that place of truth. Again, one of the participants that I interviewed was a former United States Senator, Mark Udall, who started his adult career as an Outward Bound instructor and later was the executive director of the Colorado Outward Bound school.

Mark Brown: Then his second career with politics, he became a State representative, then a U.S Congressman and then a U.S Senator. He talked a lot about, he was serving when 9/11 happened here in the United States. He was serving after that when there was the run up to going to war in Afghanistan and then going to war in Iraq and the expansion of the NSA in the United States.

Mark Brown: I think our country was, rightfully so, injured or wounded from the attacks. There was a lot of reactionaryism about us wanting retribution and things. It was part of I think the response to feeling attacked. Yet Mark talked about his values and conscience telling him that we need to slow down, think through this.

Mark Brown: Attacking Iraq has nothing to do with what happened on 9/11. He stood in Congress and he said, “It was an incredibly difficult thing to vote against the mood of the day, but my values told me this was not what we should be doing. I had to stand in that truth, even if I might’ve lost re-election. I got attacked by my political opponents.”

Mark Brown: Yet he knew it was the right thing to do. That comes out of that striving mentality of not giving into the easy way or the mood of the day, but standing in that truth. Also striving is really knowing that on any expedition, on a wilderness expedition, you hit places where there is adversity, where it gets hard.

Mark Brown: That’s where the learning really grows within what I call expeditionary leadership. That’s my description of what happens in an experience like Outward Bound. On expeditionary leadership, it’s really those moments of adversity, those moments of difficulty when the greatest learning and strengths of the individuals and the team happens.

Mark Brown: Rather than avoid the adversity, you lead into the adversity. It’s pretty apropos for right now, because I was working in the car business. I consult with the car industry, and the disruption within the industry is intense. The traditional ways that people have practiced business for almost 100 years may not even exist 10 years from now.

Mark Brown: Within that rapid change, that adversity that comes out of it, you need this leadership model. There’s huge opportunity here for leaders who can help unleash the human potential of their teams. That’s really what the striving piece is about. It’s focusing on your team and your own growth when you’re in the hard spots, knowing that, that is the place of opportunity.

Bryan Collins: One example that struck me in that part of the book was the 70/20/10 model. Is that a model from Outward Bound? Is the interviewee relating that to her Outward Bound experiences?

Mark Brown: That was Laura Kohler who talked about that, who is the descendant of the Kohler’s that founded the Kohler company, which is a company that produces mostly plumbing, bath fixtures, tubs, sinks, toilets, that kind of stuff. I would call it an adaptation.

Mark Brown: In expeditionary leadership, we built the same model. In a corporate setting, I think it’s an acknowledgement that the greatest learning, that 70% learning is going to come in the experience. What I would call in launching the expedition using my language.

Mark Brown: Taking an employee in a company and actually first preparing them, but then launching them into a project that is beyond the scope of what they’ve ever done. Oftentimes beyond the scope of what they know they can do. In Kohler, there are champions that support those people that they put in that 70%.

Mark Brown: That’s where their real growth and training and development as leaders are. It’s in that 6 to 12 to 18 month long project that, that person’s leading. That they are learning real time as they struggle and as they take on a real world challenge.

Mark Brown: Typically these projects are aligned with the companies larger goals. They take on this project, you coach and train in real time, as opposed to the 20/10. The other 20% is coaching, and then 10% training. Those are more the formalised structures.

Mark Brown: If you think, I ran an internal coaching program for a number of years in my last company. That 20 would be people coming to my office and sitting down once a week or once every two weeks to go over their progress, look at their performance stuff, get feedback. That’s that 20% formal coaching.

Mark Brown: The 70% is me actually out there with that person watching them, waiting for those moments of hardship, championing them when they do good things, helping them learn through the adversity. It’s what in the Outward Bound role, we would call those teachable moments.

Mark Brown: As a leader you have to think of yourself as a teacher. You have to be watching and waiting for those teachable moments when that person may struggle. It could be a technical skill challenge. More than likely though in leadership it’s more an interpersonal challenge.

Mark Brown: When they face that adversity around, it may be conflict within a group, it may be rallying a team to stretch themselves beyond their known abilities. It may be something happens in the marketplace that causes the organisation to need to respond quickly.

Mark Brown: That’s the time, as an expeditionary leader, you need to be present to that 70% focus. At Kohler, it sounds like from talking with Laura, that’s something that they’ve really adopted into their company. This 100 plus year old company has had huge growth the last 10 or 15 years and almost no turnover.

Mark Brown: I mean, people don’t want to leave that company. It’s partly because of that culture. It’s very engaging as a young leader. Again, I did this with my teams as well. When they get a project and you support them, if there’s not a trusting environment, this is not a good model.

Mark Brown: If you build that trust, they know you have their back and then you stretch them into this place where they didn’t know they were capable of doing it. One of the mantras in Outward Bound is that you can do more than you think you can.

Mark Brown: That’s our job as leaders is to help people find that, find that in themselves. The other piece of it is just that we need to do it together. Again, when you go on an expedition, you travel always at the speed of the slowest person.

Mark Brown: You never leave someone behind. As a leader in Outward Bound, you’re looking for those teachable moments. What people don’t necessarily think about is adversity, most people consider rock climbing as that’s a scary thing that’s going to lead to adversity, or whitewater, or other risky activities are usually the things people think are going to be the most difficult.

Mark Brown: Often it’s living in a group of people for 24/7 for three days, four days, a week, two weeks, three weeks, depending on how long your expedition. Imagine, again, I would take these leadership groups, so imagine a company of young leaders. Now they’re thrown into a wilderness expedition together.

Mark Brown: Suddenly they’re not going home at five o’clock. Not only that, but someone’s decision as a young leader may affect all of their peers. It may affect whether they get to camp on time, or how difficult it is the route that they pick, all these things. It’s pretty intense, the interpersonal development is pretty intense.

Bryan Collins: How do you coach people to manage conflict in a situation like that?

Mark Brown: Again, as a leader, you are waiting for that, because you know it’s going to come up. It’s the opportunity, so the activity always is secondary to that learning. In that moment, you stop the group and we always talk about circling it up.

Mark Brown: You circle up the group and then you begin the process of live time coaching. Some leaders will set up a charter ahead of time, which is always a good idea. You set some rules of engagement before you go out on the expedition. Then the first time it hits, then you can ask that question like, “Okay, we agreed together to be respectful to each other. Was that comment that you just made, do you think that was respectful?”

Mark Brown: Then the person who it was directed toward, “How did that feel for you to hear that?” We intensely talk about every experience. Every experience that happens is debriefed afterwards. The day is debriefed, so at the end of every day on an Outward Bound expedition is a debrief of the day often using a simple plus Delta model.

Mark Brown: What worked well? What do we need to improve on? If you’re using a leadership rotation, two people who, and again these people have never been out in the wilderness, they have no experience in it. They’re asked to lead the group for the day, and then the next day that leadership will be handed off to two more people.

Mark Brown: You may do a plus Delta to hand over leadership lessons for the next group, so they can do better the second day. Then you’ll debrief and then the next day the leadership is handed off again. As an Outward Bound leader, your job is to make yourself irrelevant.

Mark Brown: If you do your job well, then the group can function completely without you. Groups can actually get there really quickly. Within a few days a group can operate, that’s never been in the wilderness, can completely operate in the wilderness without an Outward Bound leader leading them within a few days.

Bryan Collins: Do some of these groups who are new to these experiences find it stressful?

Mark Brown: I would say almost everybody finds some part of the wilderness stressful. Some of them, it may be the sleeping on the ground, it may be the weather, it may be the activities. Particularly with adults, if you look at most people for instance, haven’t backpacked before.

Mark Brown: Put a 30 or 40 pound backpack on your back. I was leading in the North Carolina mountains, so we’re going to go. ‘See that mountain over there? We’re going to be on top of that tomorrow.’ They’ve never climbed a mountain. They’ve never carried a backpack.

Mark Brown: Not only that, but you’re going to lead the expedition, not me. This is not a guiding trip here. I am not guiding you. I am going to teach you how to lead out here. They cook food, they set up and tear down camp.

Mark Brown: They run the crew. We teach them how to run these meetings, so that they learn to debrief the learning themselves and pass that leadership on. That’s all part of the teaching that happens at Outward Bound. Yes, most people find that stressful, and I think though most people, what is challenging for them, is just living in that type of a community.

Mark Brown: People aren’t used to that and there’s no distraction. There’s no cell phones and there’s no texting, that’s all put away.

Bryan Collins: Wow, that sounds quite hardcore. Would you not be concerned people would get lost?

Mark Brown: Well, you’re with them as the leader and they often do get lost, but you’re with them. You know where the crew is at all times. You’re not separate from them, but you don’t correct that. You don’t correct them if they go off course, because that becomes part of the learning.

Bryan Collins: That must require a lot of patience.

Mark Brown: Again, you have to learn to focus on the moment. If you’re focused on the outcome, then it can be really distracting. If you’re really focused on the moment, you actually want those things to happen. Yes, I would say empathy, patience, good listening skills, being really present to interpersonal stuff.

Mark Brown: That’s really the art of a really good Outward Bound leader is those abilities. I’ve been away from them for a while, but I just did an event last week in Miami. There was a group of current Outward Bound instructors there. You see the same thing. It’s a presence, a very humble but strong presence in these leaders.

Mark Brown: They’re very skilled at that human world. Being empathetic really is a pretty strong key to being good at that job. There are pillars in Outward Bound, and the final pillar, if you will, because there’s compassion. Actually the saying always was above all compassion.

Mark Brown: I was really taught in the years that I worked at Outward Bound to always hold that people are inherently good. They have this inside them and you are leading them toward that. If you don’t have that mindset, this is not the work you would want to do.

Mark Brown: The last part of the saying, not to yield. I think really we’ve addressed that somewhat here, but I think that is the ability to continue when things get hard. To put people always at the front of the equation. To lead through when you can’t really clearly see where you’re going, when people are filled with doubt, when there could be an easier path to take.

Mark Brown: That’s when that not yielding really shows itself.

Bryan Collins: Did it take you long to write the book?

Mark Brown: Well you could say the actual writing of it was about a year, but first outlined this concept. I went back to graduate school and got a Master’s in business in 2005, 2006. I first penned this. I took the principles of the wilderness and put it into an organisational change setting and penned the first outline to what I call expeditionary leadership.

Mark Brown: Then I got the opportunity to join the leadership of a company. I went inside, and before that I was working as an executive coach and consultant. I was doing this work, some with Outward Bound, some on my own and applying these principles to my work. I had never gone inside and done a full blown change.

Mark Brown: I’ve had the opportunity to come work on a fourth generation, 90 plus year old owned family business. They hired me specifically because of my Outward Bound background. They really wanted this huge culture change in their company.

Mark Brown: Then I went inside and actually ended up leading in this. Over time ended up being asked to take over some departments. I was running sales departments and marketing and digital communications and training and development and really seeing these principles go in place.

Mark Brown: I kept thinking to myself, “I’m surely not the only person doing this who came out of Outward Bound.” This is a natural skill transition that I think there must be other people who had this impact. I was a participant first of Outward Bound. That’s what drew me into it.

Mark Brown: It so impacted my life that I wanted to go do that work. I found Berrett-Koehler, the publisher, we talked a little bit. They were really encouraging about the book, and they asked me to get Outward Bound involved. That took a little while, because I wasn’t working for them.

Mark Brown: Once Outward Bound was on board, we started interviewing people and spent about a year talking to people. That’s when it really inspired me to see some of these amazing leaders who really took the lessons from their experiences with Outward Bound and really turned them into a pretty large impact in the world.

Mark Brown: Some of them significant leaders like Arthur Blank that most of the corporate world is familiar with. Then a lot of silent leaders out there who may be teachers, or maybe they’re environmental activists, but they’re using the same principles. That’s what I think really struck me of how much one, that these folks care for the people around them.

Mark Brown: How really they approach leading a little bit differently. That’s, to me, the real magic of Outward Bound.

Bryan Collins: Finally, Mark, do you have an ideal early morning routine at the moment?

Mark Brown: I do some quiet time when I’m up in the morning, so meditative time. I’ve had a meditative practice now for almost two decades. Then I don’t get this everyday, but I get outside as many days as possible. I would say four or five days out of the week.

Mark Brown: When I was in New England, I was fortunate that our offices were right on the Merrimack river. I had my canoe at the offices and I got on the river quite often. Sometimes I took coaching meetings or business meetings with my direct reports out onto the river with me, because I just found that getting in a canoe and paddling completely shifted the conversation.

Mark Brown: I did that a lot and I will walk or hike regularly. I get in a boat when I can now, it’s not as often. On most mornings at the very least I will get out. I will get up at first light and go for a walk. It just helps me to start my day that way.

Bryan Collins: I like the idea of a meeting on a canoe.

Mark Brown: These little things, they’re really impactful for people to just shift that. I know we introduced changing how you meet with people as part of the organisation. Not everybody in the company was going out on the river, but a lot of people were going for walks with their direct reports and things.

Mark Brown: It just affects the dynamic versus sitting in an office across the desk. I think it’s really important. If you’re going to connect with people and really lead them, then to shift that dynamic, so that it doesn’t feel like you are a boss, but more that you are that caring, compassionate person that’s there for them. Something as simple as a walk outside can make a big difference.

Bryan Collins: Where can people find the book or more information about your work Mark?

Mark Brown: The book is for sale on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound. A lot of the independent bookstores as well. Barnes & Noble had it out as an initial display when it was released, but you can get it on the shelves in most of their stores around the country or order online.

Mark Brown: My website is markmbrown.com, and it is really a chance if people want to go just learn more about what I call expeditionary leadership. If they’re interested in either exploring change leadership in their company, or they want to understand more about the principles and how they can be adapted to an organisational setting.

Mark Brown: There’s a lot of resources there.

Bryan Collins: Thank you.

Mark Brown: Well, thank you.

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