Wilderness Leadership | “Heart Skills” before Hard Skills

by Ashley Denton

My friend, Doug Gilmer who teaches wilderness leadership at Liberty university recently commented that one of the reasons why Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos is so respected and loved as a leader is because he doesn’t seem to care who gets the credit. Although we Bronco fans here in Colorado are so stoked that Tebow got a “W” for his first start last weekend against the Miami Dolphins, even more than that, I appreciate the character he displays as a leader.  Young people especially need more examples like Tim in professional sports. And his example highlights a couple essential qualities I look for in excellent wilderness leadership.

Think about it: There’s far less limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit…

In wilderness leadership, this is essential! I’ve seen a lot of outdoor gurus try to lead others and fail because they are so focused on themselves and the persona they are trying to put off to others. This week, a student named Dave in my outdoor leadership course at Denver Seminary made a great remark about this principle. He said, “Christian outdoor leadership is about turning Wilderness Loners into Wilderness Leaders.” That is a profound statement that is worth some thought. Do I love the outdoors for what I can get out of it myself? Do I pursue adventure without thinking about who else I could be taking along to share the experience? Outdoor gurus may have spectacular skills, but if the heart is not in the right place, even the best of gurus may turn out to be really lame leaders. Wilderness leadership is such a privileged role in ministry because the wilderness environment naturally pushes people out of their comfort zone and makes them more teachable. So you want a leader with the right heart in charge of facilitating a spiritual journey with that much potential!

Case Study: Do you want to have guru guides leading your trips, or proven ministry leaders who have a shepherd’s heart?

I remember a friend explaining to me how Young Life’s Wilderness Ranch changed their philosophy of the types of folks they would hire as guides for their backpacking trips. When they started in the early 70’s they tried to find “outdoor gurus” to guide trips, but quickly learned that what they really needed was people who love Jesus, love young people, and also like the outdoors. So they started hiring people who had a track record in ministry and then trained them in the outdoor leadership soft skills and hard skills. This has made a huge difference in the effectiveness of Wilderness Ranch’s ministry over the last 30 years. I know this first hand from starting my own guiding career there in 1992-93. So what is the main takeaway here: First look for guide trainees who have a shepherd’s heart, then train them in the skills of wilderness leadership. The other way around doesn’t necessarily work….

Be a Hero Maker

Secondly, I remember one of the more influential mentors in my life, Bill Maston, teaching me when I was a young aspiring leader to focus on being a “hero maker”, i.e. to make heroes of other people and not myself. By focusing our energy on making others be the hero, we increase the potential of others and we get glory for God, not ourselves. In Ephesians when Paul talks about equipping others, that is what he is talking about: “…prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:12-13).”

So if you are doing outdoor ministry yourself, or starting an outdoor ministry program, focus first on the “Heart Skills” in your outdoor leadership curriculum.  You’ll be happy with the fruit that follows.