Bringing Adventure into Leadership Coaching

One of my favourite books to read to my children when they were small was, ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. The rhythmic repetition of “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day. We’re not scared” was added as flavour to make regular walks around the neighbourhood more exciting. To make it  ‘An Adventure’.

  • An adventure was exciting…
  • An adventure was a little bit scary…
  • An adventure promised reward, but with risk attached…

About two years ago, I embarked on an adventure. An associate of mine had announced she was compiling a textbook on Adventure Psychology. Not a self-published book, but a genuine textbook to be published by the well-known publishing house of Routledge. I mulled this for a while, wanting her to ask me to contribute. To write a chapter would be exciting. It would get my name known, but…

  • What if I was no good at it?
  • I had no idea what I would write about.
  • She might say no…

It was exciting yes, but also a little scary and with the risk of being rejected or being found out to be no good.  It was very definitely an adventure, but to start I had to take the first step and let her know that I wanted to take part. I had to move out of my comfort zone and take that first step. I had to knowingly go into the unknown…

To ‘knowingly go into the unknown’ is the definition of adventure that Reid & Kampman coined in their paper in 2020. It is the definition that Hanna Kampman and I used in the chapter that we wrote for that book on Adventure Psychology, which was finally published at the end of 2022. Our chapter was titled ‘Posttraumatic growth and wisdom’ and examined the role that adventure has on creating growth in individuals, following a traumatic event.  

Now I hear you saying “but we are leadership coaches, what has this to do with my coaching?” Well, while we were exploring adventure in people who had experienced the traumas of war; of surviving a cancer diagnosis; or possibly experiencing PTSD from another cause, ANYONE can experience trauma. 

Trauma is commonly defined as a “highly challenging life event” which is outside of ordinary people’s normal experience. However, trauma is subjective: what may be highly traumatic for one person, may not be as life changing or challenging for another. Thinking in this way about trauma brings much more of what our clients’ experience under the heading of trauma:

  • The sudden impact of a world pandemic
  • The collapse of value of a company’s shares or hostile take-over
  • Discovery that your life partner has been cheating or wants a divorce
  • Workplace bullying

One article I read recently suggested that the symptoms of PTSD experienced by individuals who had experienced repeated workplace bullying was the equivalent of being in the vicinity of an exploding device at least ten times. Soldiers at least know they are going into danger and might experience an explosive device nearby. Your average employee has every reason to expect their place of work to be a safe space, so their assumptions about the world and their own value can be shattered by systematic bullying. They suffer trauma. 

So, how is adventure able to facilitate growth – and thereby be of interest to us, as Leadership Coaches? 

We distilled the research to three main processes:

Reducing – by taking the individual away from their everyday life, adventure seems to reduce the present-moment impact of the trauma, refocusing their attention onto the tasks involved in the adventure, leading to: 

  • being fully present in the adventure (a little mindful presence)
  • decreasing anxiety, as the focus moves away from the trauma to that present moment

This then leads to:

Stabilisation, Calming and Grounding – on an adventure we are not being judged for anything other than what we are doing on the adventure. This can create a kind of sanctuary for the mind as it moves:

  • towards soft fascination – a process of holding their attention without being too demanding – first described by Kaplan & Kaplan in 1989
  • from mental demands to physical demands
  • away from negative rumination (where we go over and over what happened)
  • towards reflection, which allows us to learn and grow. 

We gain distance and perspective. In my own study one of the participants, whom I called Ben, said, “The world seems to slow down because you are completely fixated on the physical senses”.

Finally, we get to the third phase of Producing, which may include:

  • Wellbeing improvements
  • New meaning and purpose
  • Reprioritisation
  • Increased self-belief
  • New connections, importantly who value you for who you have proved to be. 

I think those all sound like fantastic outcomes for our clients. So, how can we tap into this knowledge and encourage our clients to go on an adventure? 

Well, not all adventures have to be the kind that involve climbing mountains or learning to dive. We can invite our clients to define what “out of the ordinary” is for them. 

Channelling this knowledge may be as simple as going to a park for a coaching session, instead of sitting in their office. This is an environment that is away from their everyday and out of their control. It can offer soft fascination if there is a river, a lake, or leaves overhead that they can watch.  

It could take the form of inviting them to challenge themselves to try something they have never tried before: whether that is driving on a skid pan (nothing like a little perceived risk to sharpen the senses and move us to the present moment) or kayaking along the coast.  It may even be to try diving, as the participants in my study did.  

The important things seem to be for there to be enough need to focus on the task at hand to take their full concentration; for it to be away from the everyday; for the challenge to be real (and for a workaholic manager, leaving that office in the middle of the day can be a real challenge); and for there to be some time and space for reflection. 

For me, the adventure of co-authoring a book chapter was all of these things. It included that element of risk too. Now the final product is sitting on my desk next to my keyboard (see photo below) as I write I realise that it has improved my sense of self-belief; it has given me immense pleasure to see it in print and it created a real sense of meaning and purpose while I was writing and editing (and re-editing). Now it is spurring me on to reassess my business priorities – to decide if I want to go on another creative adventure. 

I’m not scared… 

If you would like to find out more about Adventure Psychology: Going knowingly into the unknown the book is available from Routledge or leading bookstores.