Date of Award


Degree Name

PhD Leadership Studies

Dissertation Committee

Fred J. Galloway, EdD, Chairperson; Robert Donmoyer, PhD; Carol Cameron, PhD


adult development, developmental theory, executive development, executive leadership, experiential learning, leadership development, outdoor adventure education, transformative learning


This study sought to understand the benefits of using experiential learning methods (such as outdoor activities) for executive leader development from the perspective of senior corporate, government, and nonprofit leaders. Increasingly, executive development programs are embracing “learning by doing” by incorporating experiential activities. Although most programs are influenced by developmental psychology (such as stage theory), this study integrated perspectives from adult, transformative, and experiential learning with common practices in outdoor adventure education into a new conceptual framework for experiential leader development with four types of experiences: intrapersonal, interpersonal, managerial, and environmental. This study fills a gap in research literature regarding what, if anything, makes experiential methods beneficial for senior executive learning, growth, and development. It also sought to understand how the perceived benefits transfer, if at all, back into the workplace for these executives after program completion.

A mixed methods research design systematically explored experiential learning methods perceived by senior executives as most beneficial. Research participants included senior leaders who completed an executive leadership expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in the past 10 years. This exploratory sequential research employed three main phases: (a) in-depth interviews of 12 former NOLS executive program participants (n = 12), (b) development of a customized survey instrument, and (c) survey of the entire population of NOLS executive program alumni (N = 130).

Experiential activities that stimulate personal reflection, introspection, and provide feedback are the main source of leader development benefits in executive programs. Findings confirmed critical intrapersonal benefits such as expanded self-awareness, while interpersonal experiences discovered during multivariate regression analysis included benefits from shared vulnerability and shared sense of accomplishment when executives experience emotionally impactful activities together outdoors. Further, some executives benefit from “relearning to follow,” by revisiting unfamiliar roles with their peers that can be challenging and enlightening for experienced leaders accustomed to “being in charge.” Experiential activities help some “see” themselves in ways that could have significant leader development benefits both during and well after program completion. From these findings, we can examine learning methods used in more traditional executive programs through a different lens, potentially revealing benefits to the leadership development field more broadly.

Document Type

Dissertation: Open Access


Leadership Studies