Expedition Leadership: Developing a model and examining the impact of leadership (The Student Perspective)

Samantha McElligott
Student: Samantha McElligott
Company: Outlook Expeditions
Academic Supervisor: Dr Calum Arthur

Outline your KESS project

For the project we are looking at the impact of the expeditions that are run by the company partner for young people on their self-esteem, along with other outcomes that they wanted measured. It’s widely acknowledged that expeditions have beneficial impacts so we wanted to explore that in a quantitative way, as much of the literature to date has been about qualitative research, so we wanted to find some numbers to go with that on a large scale.

We’ve been looking at a model of transformational leadership and how that can be utilised in the expedition context; we have amended an existing scale that has been developed by SSHES over the last 15 years, so that it is content specific.

The company partner is Outlook Expeditions based in Parc Menai in Bangor, we’ve been very fortunate in our relationship with the company, it’s been very positive and we have a very good rapport with the staff. My supervisors and I have met with the company many times, and not just with the company supervisor, but with all staff when we felt the work might impact more in an HR or a training way. I visit the company regularly and during data collection periods, I have to ask for their help organising my questionnaires to be amalgamated with their expedition information packs that go with each team heading overseas. It’s typical that I will go armed with lots of cakes and biscuits!

The first year was quite difficult logistically, Outlook run a programme like clockwork every single day and all of a sudden I’m asking them to help with a three-stage data collection with 1000s of people. Irrespective of ‘gratitude cakes’ the staff have always been incredibly helpful and enthusiastic about the project.

The data collection process is now running smoothly and has been integrated into the systems used by the company; in return for their immense support I facilitate training events that they run with teachers, I also do training presentations. I have run workshops that are outside of the remit of the PhD activity which builds up the hours that I do with them and its part of the relationship that has been developed with them.

Outlook have been very good in understanding the process for the PhD, they have offered a lot of opportunity for flexibility so we’ve been able to ebb and flow depending on how we work at this end and what fits with the company. We have been very lucky in that they have given us free access to all their participants, they couldn’t have been more obliging.

A Student

I come from a background of working in the outdoors and I have seen first-hand the benefits of expeditions, it’s gratifying to be able to add to the research and provide significant numbers to go with what we think we know to be true about expeditions. Expeditions positively impact on the self-esteem of young people above and beyond a control group, they also positively impact on skills like team work, taking responsibility for your actions, communications skills, leadership skills. Essentially what we are doing is letting the world know that what’s going on already has a quantifiable benefit. I think that is really important because the government recognise with the white paper that all children must have an outdoor experience. The research that we are doing furthers that even more, it’s having an impact on those young people and ipso facto their parents and siblings, it also impacts on the teachers that go on the expeditions, the expedition leaders. It enables the teachers to take back the learning and implement it in schools, the transformational leadership training that we have done with expedition leaders is transferable and can be used in any job that they do.

The research has a huge reach, to let people know that a participant’s one off trip has a lasting benefit, we have undertaken some follow up analysis at six months and that’s demonstrated a positive effect. We have got a robust set of results that are not just from the young people but from the parents and leaders and teachers as well; we get this nice triangulation of results over time in different areas, across different variables all about how expeditions can help young people not just improve their skills but how their learning can impact their wider community.

Personal Development

As for personal development it’s given me an opportunity to work with an outdoor company on a different level.

The opportunity to do a considerable number of presentations, between 10-20 presentations a year to different audiences, some teachers, some academics, some outdoor based and it’s really good practice. It’s nice to be able to say that this research does have contact with the community.

To date I’ve been to three conferences, in my first year I went to the international leadership association conference in London, then I went to present a poster in Hawaii, which was a great experience, it was a huge conference with an international population. Then finally I went to the British Psychological society division of sport and exercise conference and won the student poster award, which was great and a bit of a shock really. I’ve recently had an article published in the Institute of Outdoor Learning magazine; ‘Horizons’. The IOL are an organisation for outdoor educators who are interested in the teaching and dissemination of information via the outdoor medium. It’s not just about the hard skills, it’s much wider, covering primary to adult, how one can get them to engage in learning etc. and I managed to get five pages all about the KESS PhD project in their latest issue.

Quite a lot of people have already been in touch to say that they have read the article, it took us a while to get there because it’s a very different style of writing, but it’s an impact case study right there, that’s brilliant.

I have also presented to a whole mix of people at Plas Y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre, which has been really good. I have also gained my Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education which means I’ve been able to teach in the department. I can’t even begin to tell you how many skills I’ve developed to be able to learn how to do statistics and what a PhD is about really. It’s mind-blowing really the amount of opportunities that I’ve been able to have and what I’ve been allowed to do and what I’ve learned from it.

I’ve done everything from first aid training to going to conferences, I even had to do a horse riding course to be able to go on one of the expeditions, it’s a real breadth of things that I’ve had the opportunity to learn. The amount of paperwork that is involved with doing the data collection is something like half a million data points per data point collection, which takes about eight weeks to manually enter, so I guess that’s where I pay my penance.
Further Research opportunities…

We are actually hoping to apply for a KTP, we want to look more at the longitudinal aspect of the impact of the work that we do; in the outdoor literature there are only a handful of papers that look at an 18 month follow up and a 13 year follow up, and very little else, so if we can have a six month, one year and two year follow up that would be fantastic. We want to be able to develop an online training platform to integrate all of the training resources using the intervention that we’ve got and helping to build a fully capable, access anywhere training resource which will save the company money and time, and we want to look at further reaching aspects. The expeditions go to over 25 destinations across the globe each year, we are not just talking about a local business with kids and parents across the UK, and we are talking about global impact which is exciting. With a KTP we may only get a feasibility scale, but there is lots of potential for that, I think one of the most interesting things would be where students end up in 10 years’ time compared with people who don’t go on an expedition, that would be very exciting.

Future Career

It’s funny, I’m a mature student and I’ve been out in the workplace and always wanted to do a PhD because I like studying and there is a lot of research to be done in outdoor field. I never really knew until this point what a PhD involved, so I don’t think I had an idea of what I would do afterwards; three years seemed like such a long period of time. Since going through the PhD it’s become more about letting people know about the expeditions and what else we can research in this field, what else we can do to show people how amazing an opportunity this is. I think if possible I would like to continue researching in that area.

Is there anything else that you would like to add about your experiences of KESS?

I’ve had lots of opportunities and Outlook have been fantastic; SSHES have also been phenomenal, I’ve been so lucky they’re very supportive and I work very hard for them and they work very hard for me. I’m over three years into the project now and I still love it as much as I did in the first year. I’ve had a great opportunity and I’ve done three expeditions with Outlook so have been able to keep my credibility as an expedition leader. Experiencing things as one of the Outlook team helped me to understand how they operate and to experience their product