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Overcoming Uncertainty: On and off the Battlefield

This article appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of The Leader

On June 14, 2012, while leading a Marine Special Operations Team on patrol in Afghanistan, Captain Derek Herrera was shot. The bullet lodged between two vertebrae in his spine, paralyzing him from the chest down. 

Derek (front) attends his stepbrother's commissioning ceremony in 2012. Back row, from left: Derek's father, stepbrother, and grandfather, all in the Air Force. 

Seven years, nearly to the day, before that fateful patrol, Herrera and 11 fellow midshipmen walked out of Alaska’s Chugach Mountains. The team had completed the third-ever Naval Academy Mountaineering Expedition designed and led by NOLS Professional Training. Beyond leadership and communication skills, the midshipmen encountered something unfamiliar: uncertainty.

Derek in the Chugach Range, Alaska

Until that point in his military career, Herrera had been told what to wear, where to be, and what to do when he got there. At the beginning of his course, Herrera and his coursemates found it challenging to function without a concrete plan, familiarity with the environment, or pre-set culture and rules. When pressed, his instructors stated, “We are going to go here and then make a decision on what to do next.” The midshipmen, like all NOLS students, had to forge a plan together as they went. They had to adjust to this newfound self-reliance, but Herrera realized there are many times in life, and the military especially, where patience is essential to a situation.

“At a certain point you will realize that you have the information you need to make a decision, or that you have to make that decision with the information you have currently,” explained Herrera. “This simple understanding has helped me immensely throughout my career.”

While Herrera had been afforded the opportunity to lead before, it was never with such purpose. The NOLS environment allowed him to lead a team to accomplish very challenging tasks.

“I’ve been able to draw on the things I learned during my expedition to perform better as a person and as a leader of Marines,” he stated. “I leverage these lessons often. Everything from creating culture and shared vision within teams to managing expedition behavior has proved valuable for me.”

Herrera raves that courses for midshipmen are “uniquely suited to offer a complimentary experience to the skills taught at the Naval Academy.” He believes while academic frameworks are important to learn what people think and why they may act the way they do, getting out and leading is the best way to learn leadership. He’s so passionate about this philosophy, he’s centered his business around it.

He founded the Special Operations Leadership Experience, which employs military–trained special operators to teach civilians how to lead in challenging, uncertain environments. While based on military leadership training, Herrera admits the framework is very similar to the NOLS leadership model. It focuses on three leadership truths: situational awareness, self-awareness, and communication. Like NOLS, he believes leadership can be learned and anybody can be a leader; it just takes time, practice, and experience.

Derek, after his first Triahalon in Tempe, AZ. March, 2013

 What is so remarkable is that he’s doing all this as a wounded warrior. Perhaps it’s his type-A personality that won’t let him quit or his unfailing optimism. Perhaps it’s his keen ability to adapt to any situation. Or maybe it’s his commitment to serving the people and country he loves and who have given him so much. For all of these reasons and so many more, Herrera is a truly inspirational NOLS leader.

-By Larkin Flora, Development Communications Coordinator

For other articles like this, check out the current and previous editions of the NOLS Alumni Publication, The Leader

Permalink | Posted by NOLS on Jun 12, 2014 in the following categories: Alaska, Alumni, Professional Training

Are you Ready to Lead in the Outdoors?

By Leif Andreassen, Bruce Kaufman, Dorothy Voorhees, Eva Tsang, Anderson Baptista, Jared Barnett, and Reid Tileston


BoothLogoOver Spring Break, six Booth students took a trip to Canyon Country in Southern Utah with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). We were blazing our own trail through the canyons, navigating 50 foot drops, avoiding fights with cactuses, and managing our own competing personality types. A common theme on the trip was ex-Swiss Special Forces first year Konrad Marti directing the group to, “less talk, more walk” with an emphatic “YOLO” from Chris Panagiotopoulos. In spite of the brisk pace we found time to scramble up canyon walls and explore Native American ruins from the 12th century. “The trip was a great investment of time and money” said trip co-planner Reid Tileston. Key to the experience was that after a day of hiking and exploring we spent time at night in front of the campfire reflecting on how we navigated the challenges that we encountered and how effectively we performed as leaders; this feedback allowed the group members to grow as leaders.

Booth Group Picture
Back left to right Jared Barnett ‘15, Konrad Marti ‘15, instructor Jaime Musnicki, Reid Tileston ‘15, and Chris Panagiotopoulos ‘15. Front left to right Kingston Wong ‘14, Leif Andreassen ‘15, and instructor Dan Verbeten


At the Leadership In Action Group this is what we are all about. The Leadership In Action Group, previously the Leadership & Influence Group, motivates the Booth community to exercise leadership skills outside of the confines of Harper Center. The outdoors are a great place to forge relationships, hone leadership skills, and have a good time. We believe there is no better way to practice leadership than to be put in stressful situations, with incomplete information, and be forced to make decisions that have consequences for your whole team. These are the types of situations we will face as business leaders on a daily basis. At Booth we value staying ahead of the competition; however, in spite of our vigilance, outdoors leadership is one area where Booth has fallen behind. When classes started in the fall we were the only top MBA program that did not have an outdoors club. Luckily those dark days are behind us.

We are creating a group where we can explore the outdoors and put our leadership skills into action in extremely fun and challenging environments. We are planning day long and weekend trips culminating with Outdoor Leadership Trek during Spring Break 2015. While getting outdoors is the end game of the club’s vision, there is an equally important classroom component as well. We have some lunch time leadership role playing sessions planned that will help members better confront real life leadership situations. [...] There are a lot of exciting developments at the Leadership In Action Group, we look forward to integrating the outdoors into the Booth community.

Permalink | Posted by Casey Pikla on May 9, 2014 in the following categories: Leadership, Professional Training

Leadership in the Wilderness: The First Darden/NOLS Course

By Alex Fife

UVA-Darden-web-logoAs the last light faded and I clicked on my headlamp, two things had become clear: 1) it is very dark in the wilderness, and 2) this was not going to be a simple walk in the woods. Though night had fallen, we still had to cover a considerable distance before reaching and setting up camp. I thought back on the day: we had hiked at least six miles, first across an expanse of cactus and thorns and then through a rocky canyon with gnarled Arizona sycamore trees. When not hiking, our time had been filled with instruction on fundamental outdoor skills such as how to cook with a camp stove, read a topographic map, and the multistep process for going to the bathroom in the woods. It was the beginning of a class unlike any other offered at Darden.

Photo by Kenny Schulman

This January marked the first Darden collaboration with the National Outdoor Leadership School, NOLS for short. In addition to running custom programs for companies like Google and, NOLS Professional Training has offered courses for a number of MBA programs. Jake Freed, Assistant Director of NOLS Pro and one our instructors, believes that “the wilderness actually draws many parallels with the landscape business school graduates will face. It is an ambiguous, dynamic setting where decisions with real consequences must be made, often with incomplete information.” Dr. Freed notes that the course structure encourages participants to “practice leadership skills in a challenging, unfamiliar environment where it is OK to fail and where both success and failure ultimately lead to profound learning.”

When asked about Darden’s decision to collaborate with NOLS, Professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne responded that “The Darden/NOLS field elective was about experiencing leadership. The idea was to empower our students by allowing each and every participant to discover their capabilities as leaders, while operating in a unique and challenging setting. When the decisions you make as a leader can result in your team hiking in the dark, getting lost, or not having enough water, outcomes are direct and consequences clear. Leaders and team members alike are called to think and care for each other in new ways and to rely on trust, extraordinary teamwork, non-selfish behavior and mutual respect.”Our course took place in the Galiuro Mountains in Arizona. Never heard of the Galiuro Mountains? Neither had we, but being in the desert in January sounded reasonably warm and the course description spoke of an area “renowned for its rugged terrain, spectacular Sonoran ecology and beautiful vistas.” It is also a treacherous place where, in the words of second year student Amanda Miller, “EVERYTHING will bite, prick, or sting you.” So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that 13 second year students, Yael, one alum, and three NOLS instructors ventured into the wilderness.

Photo by Kenny Schulman

The objective for the week was clear: to hike south through the mountain range, a distance of roughly 40 miles through canyons and high mountain passes. While our NOLS instructors would serve as advisors, Darden students were responsible for almost every aspect of the expedition. Every day, three students would act as expedition leaders, each responsible for leading a small team from dawn until dusk. These leaders would plot the course for the day, draw up contingency plans, and make dozens of critical decisions along the way. NOLS instructors would give their advice when asked, but would not intervene if a leader made a mistake.

“We had to make real managerial decisions in the middle of nowhere,” said Amanda Miller, “We had to manage our peers in uncharted territory.  We had to use a compass and a topographical map to figure out how to get down mountain faces by the light of a headlamp with no trail in sight.  We all learned about our leadership styles and how they can evolve when you move between carefully planned scenarios and chaotic uncertainty.”

“We were able to exercise both our leadership and active follower skills while receiving concrete feedback from our Darden peers and NOLS instructors,” noted Kat Baronowski, a second year student and DSA President, “It was a great opportunity to put into practice a number of the lessons we’ve learned in the Darden classroom.”

Photo by Mark Silvers

Mark Silvers, a second year student and Marine Corps veteran, agreed that the experience was a dramatic departure from learning leadership in a classroom. “It is completely different to lead a team in an environment where a leader’s mistakes can cost daylight, calories, warmth, and morale.” he said, “Darden students aren’t Marines, and the trip provided an extraordinary opportunity for me to adapt my leadership style to a diverse group with a wide range of backgrounds, risk tolerances, and priorities.”

Our NOLS instructors also pushed us to improve our “expedition behavior,” a mantra that embodies good teamwork, active followership, and mindfulness. If you see something that needs to be done in camp, do it. If you have a suggestion for a better route on the map, speak up. If you see a teammate struggling, offer to carry some extra weight to lighten their load. Share the precious last Fig Newton you had been saving when you notice someone needs an energy boost. The Darden team fully embraced this mentality and their small acts of unselfishness had a huge impact on the success of an expedition. I will be forever grateful for the untold number of sacrifices, words of encouragement and respect that my teammates gave me.

Photo by Kenny Schulman

Never was that spirit more critical than on our final day, when we rose before sunrise and hiked five miles to reach our rendezvous point. Bone tired and freezing cold, it took every ounce of energy and will to keep going. Yet despite our miserable state, all I could hear in the darkness (on our supposedly “silent hike”) was laughter and encouraging comments. One student sang a song about breakfast burritos and we chuckled to discover another, in the dim light, proudly sporting his favorite purple long johns sans pants.

As the rising sun filled the canyon with a red glow, I was struck with a pang of sadness that our journey had come to an end. I was going to miss the camaraderie, the cheesy bagels fried over a carefully balanced camp stove, and our intense sense of common purpose. Yet as I hiked the last miles of the trip, I took heart in the fact that the hard-earned lessons of the past week extended far beyond the trail.

Truly, this course was unlike any at Darden.


This post originally appeared in the February edition of the Darden School of Business' news journal, The Cold Call Chronicle.

Permalink | Posted by Casey Pikla on Feb 24, 2014 in the following categories: Leadership, Professional Training, Southwest

New Robertson Scholars Leadership Expedition Video

The Robertson Scholars Leadership Program invests in young leaders who strive to make transformational contributions to society. Students attend Duke University or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since 2008, NOLS Professional Training and The Robertson Scholars Leadership Program have run a 10 day canyon backpacking expedition for select scholars. Students are exposed to the theory and practice of leadership in one of the most beautiful classrooms in the world.

In NOLS' most recent video, scholars share their thoughts on the progression, challenges, and resulting leadership lessons learned during their expedition.


Permalink | Posted by Casey Pikla on Jan 17, 2014 in the following categories: Leadership, Professional Training

Imagine your 2014 summer

Summer is here!

Well, at least the 2014 summer NOLS course catalog is here, and that's even better, because you still have time to plan the perfect summer with NOLS.


We have boxes and boxes and boxes of the summer catalog here at NOLS Headquarters, so request one here. If you'd prefer a paperless version, we've got you covered, too. Download the iPad version of the 2014 summer catalog here.

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on Jan 16, 2014 in the following categories: Alaska, Alumni, Amazon, Australia, Curriculum, Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability, India, Instructor News, Leadership, Mexico, New Zealand, Northeast, On The Net, Pacific Northwest, Patagonia, Professional Training, Rocky Mountain, Scandinavia, Southwest, Teton Valley, Wilderness Medicine Institute, Wyss Wilderness Medicine Campus, Yukon

The 12 Days of NOLS

We’ve found the perfect way to get you into the holiday spirit and fight the cold snap with a hearty laugh. Watch NOLS Creative’s newest (and possibly goofiest) release, “The 12 Days of NOLS,” a NOLS variation on the classic tune, to get a taste of the NOLS experience or reminisce about your course! Written with extensive input from the peanut gallery, shot and edited in less than 12 hours, and brought to you with only mild shame, we now ask you to watch the video and sing along.

On the first day of my course Paul Petzoldt gave to me ...


Windpants with a reinforced knee

Two trekking poles

Three Peaks Ranch


Five pounds of cheese

Six dudes belaying

Seven miles a' shwackin’

Eight malt balls missing

Nine quickdraws clipping

Ten backpacks bulging

Eleven toasty hot drinks

Twelve students mapping

 Happy Holidays from NOLS

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on Dec 10, 2013 in the following categories: Alaska, Alumni, Amazon, Australia, Books, Curriculum, India, Instructor News, Leadership, Mexico, New Zealand, Northeast, On The Net, Pacific Northwest, Patagonia, Professional Training, Rocky Mountain, Scandinavia, Southwest, Teton Valley, Wilderness Medicine Institute, Yukon

Elon University Gap Semester & NOLS

NOLS Rocky Mountain recently produced some of the school's newest gradautes: students from the Elon University Gap Semester.
Rather than beginning their freshman year attending lectures in an auditorium and sleeping in a residence hall, 15 students opted for the Wind River Wilderness as a classroom and Megamid tents as dorm space to start their college career. After a 25-day backpacking course in Wyoming, the students will spend 4 weeks traveling cross country performing community service, followed by a 5-week cultural immersion program in Costa Rica.

Over 3 weeks, the students learned all the necessary backcountry skills - from cooking and navigation to how to give feedback and develop their own signature style of leadership - to travel independently of their 3 instructors, a highlight of the course. This was the second year of the collaboration between the North Carolina liberal arts college and NOLS Professional Training.

Congrats to our newest graduates, and for earning their first diploma of their college career!
Interested in more information on a gap semester or year with NOLS? Click here. 
All photos by instructor Jeff Wagner

Permalink | Posted by Jessica Fuller on Sep 15, 2013 in the following categories: Professional Training, Rocky Mountain

Drumroll, please ...

It has arrived. Thirty thousand copies of the shiny new course catalog have been unloaded and piled up at NOLS Headquarters, and another 30,000 will be shipped to potential students soon.

We thought we’d introduce you.

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 2.09.47 PM

Like last year, the NOLS course catalog has a clean, square shape and inspiring personal accounts to make the NOLS experience relatable.

With this catalog, though, we have dedicated more pages to courses and NOLS locations, specifically for the upcoming season. In fact, it’s dedicated almost entirely to the winter and spring course offerings at NOLS because we are going to publish three seasonal catalogs a year from now on. This will allow us to tailor the information in each catalog to each season to give you more helpful information about our course offerings.

You can look forward to a summer course catalog in January and a fall course catalog in April. All three catalogs will be available iPad apps shortly after their publication.

If you haven’t already requested a catalog, do so here or keep an eye out for the app, to be released soon! 

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on Aug 28, 2013 in the following categories: Alaska, Australia, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Northeast, Pacific Northwest, Patagonia, Professional Training, Rocky Mountain, Scandinavia, Southwest, Teton Valley, Wilderness Medicine Institute, Wyss Wilderness Medicine Campus

WRMC to Host the Acclaimed Author, Laurence Gonzales

Join us at the Wilderness Risk Management Conference (WRMC) as we celebrate our 20th anniversary. The conference seeks to provide practical solutions for challenging issues that face organizations that explore, work, and teach in wild places. This year the conference will be held at Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park, from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. The event is co-sponsored by NOLS, the Student Conservation Association, and Outward Bound—three organizations that understand the complexity of running a quality outdoor educational program and provide workshops that meet the needs of industry professionals.

The WRMC provides a professional setting for outdoor educators to share and learn from one another.  Our quality workshops are led by some of the most seasoned veterans in the outdoor education community. They will teach you all about risk management skills, administrative practices, pertinent research, and up-to-date field techniques.  All the while, through our open forum, you can voice your comments, concerns, and questions to help improve the quality of the conference. Among this year’s array of qualified presenters is award-winning author Laurence Gonzales.


Gonzales was born in St. Louis and grew up in Houston and San Antonio. Drawing from the experiences of his father, a World War II pilot who survived against all odds, Gonzales has pursued a career in understanding who survives, who does not, and why. He has authored several books including Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why and its sequel Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience. Gonzales has won several awards, including two National Magazine Awards and the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

During his keynote address, Gonzales will address intelligent mistakes: why smart people do stupid things, based on his work for his books Deep Survival and Everyday Survival. His talk will explore the natural functioning of the brain and how, even when we are performing basic tasks, it can lead us in to systematic errors. 

Don’t miss out on this year's opportunity to witness the culmination of twenty years of collaboration between some of the most respected names in Wilderness Risk Management! Come and join the conversation!

Permalink | Posted by Max McQuarrie on Jul 26, 2013 in the following categories: Professional Training, Teton Valley, Wilderness Medicine Institute, Wilderness Risk Management Conference

Taking a STEP in the Right Direction

After years spent working in the field with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Dr. Tracy Baynes made several astute observations about the students who participate in outdoor courses. They gain a tremendous amount from their time in the field. They grow by being pushed outside of their comfort zones. They have life transforming experiences. They are also, as Tracy noted, mostly wealthy and white.

STEP pic1

Curiosity duly peaked by her findings, Tracy began to look at education statistics and noticed a huge achievement gap between low-income and high-income students. She also found that programs geared towards struggling, underprivileged youth existed but there were few— if any— programs designed to provide support to disadvantaged students who excel.


Recognizing a need, Tracy created the Student Expedition Program (STEP) in 2002 to “equip low-income, first-generation college-bound Arizona teens with the internal tools to succeed in college. Our overall goal is to help break the chain of generational poverty in the families with which we work by preparing students for success in higher education.”

In 2005, STEP began partnering with NOLS Professional Training to take students on a 23-day sea kayaking expedition along the coastlines of Alaska’s remote wilderness.  

“The first step to success is belief in oneself. The goal of the NOLS course is to provide students with an experience that helps them to know internally that they have what it takes to achieve whatever they want, especially recognizing that they can be a pioneer to college,” Tracy said. STEP Pic4

Since its founding, STEP has seen all of its 112 graduates successfully complete high school, and 81 percent are in college or have graduated from college. Moreover, STEP graduates are attending some of the most well respected academic institutions in the nation including Georgetown University, Bowdoin College, Smith College, University of Notre Dame, U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Air Force Academy, University of Southern California (USC), University of Richmond, Lehigh University, and Pitzer College.


When asked about her long-term vision for STEP, Tracy said she hopes to “reach as many high-achieving, low-income students as possible and eventually turn over the leadership of the program to STEP alum.”

Permalink | Posted by Erin Daily on Apr 19, 2013 in the following categories: Alaska, Professional Training

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