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Why Leaders Need To Get Outside

Knight Campbell
January 9, 2024

Couldn't we all use more joy?

Grinning ear to ear as I zipped down a hill on my mountain bike, I realized I don’t tap into such exuberant joy so consistently anywhere other than outside. If you must ask why leaders should take time to get outside, isn’t that enough? Ok, maybe you’re a skeptic, an evidence-based-only business leader. 

Allow me to make a case for why you need to make outside time a number one priority now.

Get more energy to lead

The health benefits of time outside – 12% lower mortality rate, elevated immunity, lower stress hormones, decreased hypertension, and so on – have been well documented by empirical research. If these are not enough reasons to prompt a purposeful half-hour outdoor jaunt every day, that’s surprising. Ignoring this is like refusing an all-natural miracle drug that is fun to take.

But seriously, getting outside matters to your bottom line. Leaders we coach often battle long hours, constant stress, and decision fatigue. They consistently forget self-care, ironically, wearing their self-denial as a badge of honor. The truth is, people might tangentially respect such hard work, but in general, don’t want to follow strung-out and exhausted leaders. This matters especially in crises, when we need invigorated, focused, and present decision-makers to lean on. Your energy as a leader directly impacts your people’s energy. Consider emotional contagion, yes science again. Just a couple of hours a week outside will rejuvenate you. Um… did I mention you live longer?

Solve problems faster

Not convinced? If you are responsible for any strategic thinking, it’s silly to discount time outside as a tool. Studies show that time outside can boost creativity significantly! Yes, that’s science too. It’s not surprising. Sitting in noisy offices creates distractions that limit ‘flow’ at work. Often it only takes a few minutes to sit under a tree in a park or a few hours to hike to a vista to unlock awe – an emotion combining a sense of vastness with the need to shift your perspective. In his great book Your Brain at Work, David Rock explains that with a fresh perspective, instead of futilely poking at every angle of an intractable problem with our prefrontal cortex we step into a different dimension with our hippocampus and voila, problem solved.

If you’re feeling a little myopic in your office, it’s not surprising. Children who don’t get outside in modern society are literally more short-sighted because they don’t get a chance to gaze over vistas. You will figuratively run into the same problem sitting in your office. 

Need more inspiration? From Kingfisher’s beaks to bullet trains and termite mounds to skyscrapers, top researchers in the field of biomimicry are solving some of the world’s toughest problems by seeking guidance from nature. You could do the same. Our brain expects to see natural phenomena such as fractals and ecosystems. When we are immersed in the outdoor environment, solutions that have worked for nature for millions of years become apparent. 

Not buying it yet? Outdoor time makes you smarter too! One empirical study showed that four days outside boosts creativity by 50%- yes 50%!

Develop your character

Time outside develops character – fast. Character might be the single most important thing to building great leaders. Anyone can learn how to make decisions, but character takes serious work. It defines us, dictates how we act under pressure, and whether or not we inspire people. Nature does not have customer service. When things go wrong, mountains don’t care. Getting lost outside can be scary as heck, and these very real consequences demand growth.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi found in his seminal ‘flow’ research that optimal learning (and working) environments match your skill with a challenge just a little beyond you. The outdoors offers one of the few places you can get way outside your comfort zone, learn deeply about yourself, and grow in big ways, even on a Saturday afternoon.

Try it! Go take on an outdoor challenge that scares you a little and revel in the new awareness and increased self-reliance that emerges. To top it off, Harvard Business Review recently discussed humility as a key character trait of great leaders. Can you train for humility? Absolutely, go hike a mountain. I promise you’ll feel small.

Kick the habits that hold you back

James Clear points out in Atomic Habits, that it is actually easy to change habits by changing our environment. Vietnam Vets came home as heroin addicts and completely changed how we think about addiction by successfully quitting (typically heroin users have a 90% lapse rate). How? They did not have any of the cues (machine gun fire, extreme stress, jungle heat, etc) that started the habit cycle. When you leave the comfort of your office, you leave behind all the little automatic ways of thinking and relating to your teammates linked to your cues. Get outside to literally think differently.

No more excuses

Going outside as a serious leader can seem frivolous, a low priority when ‘real responsibilities’ compete for your attention. Here are the facts though – on average we use our cell phones 2,600 times a day. We religiously multitask, despite a resounding agreement in academia that our brains don’t work that way. We are increasingly depressed (around 16.2 million people in the U.S. now suffer from depression annually)- a problem science shows time outside alleviates. 

Outdoor time for leaders may seem frivolous, but that’s simply not what we all intuitively know to be true or what science says. The jury is not out on this one. Science clearly shows that a few hours a week outside will make you happier, healthier, more creative, more strategic, more inspirational, and yes, you’ll live longer.

It is not hard for leaders to get outside

It’s not hard. It’s literally down the elevator, to the right, and out the door. Find a park. San Diego County has a map of all the green spaces you could explore within 20 miles – 27 of them! Your city likely has a similar map.

Check out the hiking project (202 trails in San Diego) or other apps that show you places to explore. Local guide companies will teach you a wide range of skills from beginner to expert, pleasant to harrowing. Cairn Leadership and a few others will even combine the adventure with professional development – write it off on your taxes!  

Not ready to pay for adventures? We have hikes you can join and there are a thousand more on, no excuses. If you are still on the fence, there’s not much I can say. I hope eventually you’ll see the light (and get some vitamin D). 

If you already knew this, I hope this research helps you explain to your boss why 30 minutes in the park is more valuable than three hours in the office. We genuinely look forward to seeing you out there!

Want to dig in? Read The Nature Fix by Florence Williams.

Questions? We'd love to hear from you! 

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