AIM This learner guide is designed to provide a background to leadership theory for Leaders, Guides and Instructors.

When used in conjunction with training and experience the student should understand:

• Requirements from leaders change from activity to activity and context to context

• Leadership is not a fixed personality or system

• Kayak and canoe Leaders, Guides and Instructors should be adept at matching groups to the activity aims and the environmental context.


What is leadership in sport and recreation?

“The process employed by the person to assist individuals and groups in identifying and achieving their goals.” (Edginton and Ford).

“The process of persuasion and example by which an individual induces a group to take action that is in accord with the leader’s purpose or the shared purpose of all.” (Gardner).

“A leader can be thought of as an individual who, guides, directs and influences the attitudes and behaviours of others.” (Edginton and Ford).

Leaders should always remember that if they have the ‘power to influence’ then within the sport and recreation context they have a ‘duty of care’.

Being a sound leader is all about preparation. Defence training often refers to the five ‘Ps’: ‘Proper preparation prevents poor performance’. Leadership starts long before the activity and concludes only after it has been fully packed away. Leadership includes preparation in:

• Hazard identification and risk management

• Navigation planning

• Weather interpretation

• Equipment preparation

• Logistics Activity leadership concludes with:

• Participant debrief

• Equipment cleaning, inspection and maintenance

• Activity review 

Leadership is not about being out front of the group or being the centre of attention. Leadership is about assisting a group in achieving its goals.


A kayak leader requires a clear understanding of the aims and objectives of the activity and the risk management process involved with that activity.

The traits of a leader may include some or all of the following:

1 Guiding vision:

– where going and share that vision

– goals both personal and group

– assist individuals and group in identifying and achieving them

– create a sense of purpose

– visionary and practicality

2 Communication

– closely allied to vision

– communicating

– honest and open, no hidden agendas

– often put thoughts into verbal symbols to communicate intentions and visions: a very difficult task

3 Risk taker

– innovative

– risk taking often fullest demonstration of leadership skills

– seizing opportunity

– curiosity and daring

4 Passion

– allied to risk taking and confidence

– strong belief in what doing

– enthusiasm, inspiration to others

– motivation

– recognise and satisfy needs of followers

– stay excited

5 Seek to serve needs of others

– unselfish – ability to work with others help and nurture them

– personality (empathy, integrity, trust, warmth, patience)

– basic conviction of human worth and dignity

– ability to work with others

– flexibility

Other qualities

– seek new learning experience

– self-motivating

– pleasure, even joy from profession

– able to handle criticism

– persistent in drive to be the best

– a sense of humour

2 Communication

– closely allied to vision

– communicating

– honest and open, no hidden agendas

– often put thoughts into verbal symbols to communicate intentions and visions: a very difficult task

3 Risk taker

– innovative

– risk taking often fullest demonstration of leadership skills

– seizing opportunity

– curiosity and daring

4 Passion

– allied to risk taking and confidence

– strong belief in what doing

– enthusiasm, inspiration to others

– motivation

– recognise and satisfy needs of followers

– stay excited

5 Seek to serve needs of others

– unselfish

– ability to work with others help and nurture them

– personality (empathy, integrity, trust, warmth, patience)

– basic conviction of human worth and dignity

– ability to work with others

– flexibility

Other qualities – seek new learning experience

– self-motivating

– pleasure, even joy from profession

– able to handle criticism

– persistent in drive to be the best

– a sense of humour

Professional ethos

– Creating the vision (constructing a crystal clear mental picture of what the group) and transmitting this vision to the minds of others

– Developing the team (developing a team of highly qualified people who are jointly responsible for achieving the group’s goals)

– Clarifying the values (identifying the organisational values and communicating these values through words and actions)

– Positioning (developing an effective strategy for moving the group from its present position toward the vision)

– Communicating (achieving a common understanding with others by using all modes of communication effectively)

– Empowering (motivating others by raising them to their ‘better selves’)

– Coaching/helping others develop the skills needed for achieving excellence

– Measuring identifying the critical success factors associated with the group’s operation and gauging progress on the basis of these factors.

Leaders are just that: ‘leaders’, the people at the front. The list above can suggest that the leader is some kind of saint with the ability to maintain a number of possibly conflicting agendas and outcomes. Sound leadership comes from intelligent decision making.


Leaders of groups may be required to perform many roles in the course of an activity. They may have to encourage a beginner, arbitrate a dispute around a campsite and inspire confidence when faced with some hazard.

As well as being aware of group dynamics, leaders need to have a feeling for the appropriateness of various styles of leadership for particular situations and different groups. While the underlying principles are similar, very different leadership behaviors are necessary to guide an experienced adult group from those needed to run the first day of a beginners youth group.

Leadership styles can be broadly categorized into three major styles. Each style has appropriate applications, depending on the group, the nature of the task and the range of outside factors influencing the situation. The styles are outlined below.


As a Leader, Guide or Instructor, often your role is to facilitate an activity or discussion. It is important to develop the ability to • Plan for the learning activity or discussion

• Explain the required process or outcome

• Step back and ‘chair’ the activity or discussion

• Summarise the learning.

This may mean using components from the range of styles outlined below


The leader makes the decisions and the group is required to show agreement and act in accordance with the leader’s decisions. The leader’s decisions are not put up for questioned as there is usually no opportunity for discussion. In this style of leadership the activities of the group are closely supervised.

To be able to provide autocratic leadership when and if it is required the leader must establish a relationship with the clients that demonstrates that they are clear thinking, experienced and to be trusted and followed in emergency situations.

An autocratic leadership style is useful when the group experiences an emergency situation and there is limited time to make decisions, or a group activity includes potential dangers and the group requires the close guidance of an experienced leader.


The leader provides opportunities for discussion and consultation drawing ideas from the group under supervision. The group with the leader makes decisions about what the group will do and how they will function.

This style will only work in activities or for decisions where the group has the knowledge and experience to conduct a rational discussion and make sensible decisions.

Where a group decision is required on an area of the activity outside of ‘normal’ knowledge and expectations it is important that the leaders provides the group with sound background information prior to beginning the group discussion.

A democratic style of leadership is useful when:

– group commitment to decisions is required to successfully complete an activity

– group rapport is being developed

– there is time for discussion in the decision making process.


The leader and the group are involved in decision making. Limits to behavior may be set but group members are responsible for their part in the activity. The participative leader’s role is to advise and to co-ordinate the activities of the group members.

The laissez-faire style of leadership is useful when:

– group members are responsible for a part of a whole group activity

– group members are capable of performing activities without the aid of others.


Styles vary from being leader-centered to being group-centered. Ideally, leaders should be able to adapt their style to the situation. It is this versatility of style which helps to make an effective leader. In order to develop a versatility of style the leader needs to be aware of the kinds of behavior used to influence groups.


The term style speaks about an overall approach to leadership. Behaviors are short term approaches used within the leadership role. You will notice many of the behaviors below are clearly traits of the leadership styles.

The way a leader interacts with a group to help it progress towards group goals will affect the relationships in the group and the quality of the activity performed. A number of leader behaviours used to facilitate groups are discussed below


The leader becomes aware of a problem, considers alternative solutions, chooses one of them and then tells the group what they are to do. Leaders may or may not consider what the group members might think or feel about the decision, but members clearly do not participate directly in the decision making. Telling is used frequently by those who have adopted the autocratic style as their preferred style of leadership.


The leader makes a decision without consulting the group. However, instead of simply announcing the decision, the leader persuades the group members to accept it by pointing out how the members will benefit from carrying out the decision.


The leader identifies a problem and proposes a tentative solution. Before making a final decision, however, the leader gets the reactions of those who will implement it. The leader says, in effect: ‘I’d like your frank reactions to this problem, and I will then make the final decision.’ 


The leader gives the group members a chance to influence the decision from the beginning by presenting a problem and relevant background information, then asking members for their ideas on how to solve it. In effect, the group is invited to increase the number of alternative actions to be considered. The leader then selects the solution regarded as most

promising. Consulting is frequently used by leaders who have adopted the democratic style as their preferred style of leadership.


The leader here participates in the discussion as just another member and agrees in advance to carry out whatever decision the group makes. Joining is frequently used by leaders whose preferred style of leadership is laissez-faire or participative.


We tend to have a personality style which will often fit into one of the leadership styles. Personality is set at a young age and it is hard for people to act differently to their personality. It is important for leaders to understand their own personality type and be able to suspend it to use a range of styles and behaviors as appropriate.


Collaboration involves working together to achieve goals. The benefits of using collaborative processes come from using the sum of the group’s knowledge, skills and abilities.

The theory is thus: one person confronted with a new situation is limited in their problem solving to their past experience and their own knowledge. Add one other person with different experiences and immediately you have more to draw upon.

Add many more people with all their different experiences and, so long as the process is managed so that all those people have the chance to contribute, you clearly have a vast store of experience, knowledge and skills available to solve the problem. For the process to be useful, the group must possess relevant knowledge and experience.

A novice group on a sea kayak expedition may not have accurate information to offer the process. Where collaboration is used it is important that the leader facilitates the discussion and ensures it is steered in an appropriate direction.


It is well documented that large groups (mobs) can make decisions and take actions that individuals feel are unethical, immoral or similar. Groups will often take risks as a result of individuals willing to relax their own standards or feeling perceived leaders in the group are making the right decisions or because they don’t want to be seen to be different.

The leader needs to ensure they stay outside the group and its processes and must ensure the group is acting on good information and guidelines.


Within a simple paddling activity a leader must consider carefully their proximity to the group and style of leadership.

At Meet and Brief a leader should be autocratic and preemptive. Safety briefings should always fit into the category of ‘Telling’ as defined above. Leaders should not expect the group to know the issues. This is also a point for setting tone and authority. Sun glasses have no place in briefings where eye contact and establishing trust is important. Leaders should also be correctly dressed for the activity. First impressions are critical to setting the whole tone of an activity.

Fitting people into kayaks is an area where a more relaxed style is important. People need to relax enough listen and try the seating position rather than sitting rigidly whilst the process occurs. Where should a leader lead from on the water? A leader needs to be where they can see and monitor the group as well watch for approaching hazards.

In flatwater and sea paddling this often means the leader sits on one of the rear corners of the group. Being out front is rarely useful: the leader can’t see the group and is in a poor situation for fast response in the event of an incident.

Positioning becomes even more critical in whitewater where the leader’s position may define whether they can react to incidents at all.

Launching, landing and areas such as rapids and surf are situations where being ‘in control’ of the group is important, however being relaxed and able to carry on encouraging conversations with participants is important to maintaining their confidence and completing the activity. In planning an activity, plan your proximity and leadership style.


Outdoor recreation activities can have consequences for the participants, the leaders and the environment. Choices and decisions must frequently be made. Choices are not always clear cut, and whether they are right or wrong may change with the circumstances.


• a set of principles of right conduct

• a theory or a system of moral values

• the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy

• the rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession

• “Ethics is the study or treatment of moral questions or dilemmas. Ethics is therefore concerned with determining why some situations or actions may be better or worse than others in determining a good act from a bad act... In outdoor leadership, ethical decision-making arises out of the need to resolve dilemmas of some sort where no clear right or wrong course of action is evident where no ways exist to find the right answer by measurement, calculation or testing. Ethics is concerned with judgements involving values not facts.” (Bushwalking, Ski Touring and Outdoor Leadership, 2000).


There are many ethical decisions an activity leader may have to make. The leader will be involved in deciding which of alternative courses of action to take. The kinds of issues an activity leader may need to analyse, assess and decide on include the level of risk of an activity as opposed to the benefit of the activity to the client. For example whether a group of school children are sufficiently skilled to paddle through a section of rapids, an activity they would find exhilarating when safely completed. The ethical decision making process needs to weigh up the benefit to the individual as opposed to the benefit to the group in the context of safety and group objectives


The essential skills for a leader to establish and maintain a group are the open communication and information sharing skills of assertiveness, listening, questioning, clear expression of facts and feelings and the giving and receiving of constructive feedback.


A person behaving assertively is able to communicate their feelings of self worth by the way they behave in a work team. They seek to have their goals and needs fulfilled but are at the same time concerned with helping others to have their goals met. Using ‘I’ statements is one way to behave assertively. An ‘I’ statement is a clear and structured statement of the way you experience a situation that does not threaten or blame the other party


Listening is a skill which complements assertiveness. Listening involves hearing what the group member has to say and understanding the situation from their point of view. Listening is one way of providing support to group members.


Written and spoken language is the means of giving and receiving information in groups. It should be:

• clear

– information is relevant and easily understood

– information is presented logically and sequentially

• concise

– information is stated in the fewest possible words

• complete

– all information needed to make a decision is presented: correct, well researched and accurate.


Questions are used in group situations to start discussion, to clarify information and to obtain responses. Two types of question can be asked: open and closed questions.

Open questions are used to encourage the other team members to explain their ideas in more detail or express their opinions more clearly.

Closed questions are used to obtain specific and usually factual information. They can usually be answered with one or two words.


Feedback is a response given to a person who has said or done something. Feedback should be specific rather than general; offer positive suggestions as alternatives to inappropriate behavior; contribute to productive working relationships. Feedback is subjective and the suggestions given d not have to be accepted or acted on by the receiver.

The receiver needs to be willing to accept feedback and determine whether to act on it. Using these communication skills will aid group participation and co-operation. Their consistent use will also mean that the group will be able to place trust in the leader as a person who will treat them fairly and value their contribution to group members so that they will begin to trust one another.

The leader will act as a role model. The leader can also devise a number of simulated activities which will help the group come to know and trust one another. These kinds of activities are known as icebreakers or warm down. During the course of an outdoor activity the group leader can introduce other simulated games which encourage co-operation among group members.


Being part of a group sometimes requires facing potentially demanding situations. Issues such as equity, gender, ethnicity and emotional well-being may require strategies to handle sensitive situations.

The facilitator of a group must be aware of the needs of their group. If a person is showing signs of emotional stress (e.g. crying unexpectedly),

the facilitator may use the following strategies:

• discreetly remove the person from the group

• ask if they would like to talk or need help

• refer them elsewhere (if appropriate)

• talk to the rest of the group (if appropriate).


In the workplace (and almost any setting), you are likely to find two forms of conflict. The first is conflict about decisions, ideas, directions and actions. We will call this ‘substantive conflict’ since it deals with disagreements about the substance of issues. The second form, ‘personalized conflict’ is often called a personality conflict. In this form, the two parties simply ‘don’t like each other much’.


Substantive conflict can occur on just about any issue, but its moving force is that the two parties simply disagree about an issue. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Handled correctly, parties in conflict can create, for themselves and those around them, the ability to resolve an issue with something creative, something better than either party’s original position.


While substantive conflict, if handled correctly, can be very productive, personalized conflict is almost never a good thing.

There are several reasons.

• First—personalized conflict is fueled primarily by emotion (usually anger or frustration) and perceptions about someone else’s personality, character or motives. When conflict is personalized and extreme each party acts as if the other is suspect as a person.

• Second—because personalized conflict is about emotion and not issues, problem solving almost never works, because neither party is really interested in solving a problem... in fact, in extreme cases, the parties go out of their ways to create new ones, imagined or real.

• Third—personalized conflicts almost always get worse over time if they cannot be converted to substantive conflict. That is because each person expects problems, looks for them, finds them, and gets angrier.

Solution strategies

When involved in a conflict situation, it is important that you are aware of whether you and the other party are dealing with a substantive conflict or a personalized one. It isn’t always easy to tell them apart, and it is difficult to look honestly at oneself.

Ask yourself the following questions:

Do I dislike the other person or get frustrated with him/her?

Do I see the other person as untrustworthy, and undeserving of respect?

Is my emotional reaction to the conflict appropriate to its seriousness or lack thereof?

Do I really want to ‘win’?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you may be setting yourself up for a personalized conflict that nobody can win in the long term. With respect to the other person, one good indicator of a personalized conflict situation is that the person will try to counter your substantive point on the issue with a series of different reasons why you are wrong.


Even in situations where both you and the other party have personalized the conflict, you can work to focus on specific issues. You have not direct control over another person, but you have control over yourself. By moving to the issues, and staying there, you will also encourage the other person to do so. It isn’t easy, of course. The trick is to try to put aside your negative perceptions about the other person, and not to dwell on them. That’s an internal thing. Every time you think to yourself ‘what an idiot’ (or all the other negative things), you make it that more difficult to stay focused on problem solving, rather than winning, or getting your own way.

Work to prevent personalisation

It is rare that personalisation occurs just on the basis of two incompatible personalities. Usually, personalisation occurs because conflict on substantive issues is handled badly. That is, one or both parties behaves in non cooperative ways.


Every time a new group of people are brought together they will interact in various ways.

Following is one of the traditional models of group development. It is provided as an example to assist you in understanding groups under your leadership. Do not be concerned that your groups do not resemble the interactions in this model.


As a group develops it progresses through stages. Knowing the stages and what is required to advance the group to the next stage helps the leader to facilitate the group’s tasks and to nurture group development. The stages of group development as defined by this model are described below.


In this stage, group members begin to interact in a tentative way as they become familiar with the group’s goals. Group members assess the bounds of acceptable behavior in the group. The leader plays a prominent role as members seek guidance and support. Members also try to find out about one another. Their main concerns are what role they will play in the group and whether they will be accepted as part of the group.

To move to the next stage members of the group are required to:

• take risks by expressing opinions which may prove to be contrary to the views of other group members

• make personal decisions about the role they will play in achieving the group’s purpose.


Conflict occurs in the group during this stage. The conflict is usually about goals and how they are to be achieved, leadership issues and the importance of the roles to be played. Group members may make personal attacks or express disagreement by appearing to be uninvolved.

To move to the next stage members of the group are required to:

• establish clear roles for each member placing emphasis on group maintenance roles; listen emphatically to the views of other group members

• accept the possibility that they are wrong.

It is important to note that groups which do not resolve status struggles do not move on to become effective in problem solving, nor are members of the group satisfied with the group’s performance. The group will fulfill its task but the solution is not likely to be an optimal one; they never satisfy all group members and, at best, are products of compromise. If some degree of acceptance or trust is not established, decision making becomes hampered by closed and guarded communication. Decisions are made without deep commitment.


Members begin to feel more comfortable in the group and goals, tasks and roles are defined. The leader’s role becomes less prominent. A team spirit emerges as members share information and develop a positive attitude to the group’s endeavors. To move to the next stage each group member is required to:

• have confidence in their capacity to satisfactorily perform their own role

• trust others to complete the tasks assigned them.


The group begins to perform at optimum level. The group attempts to strike a balance between performing its tasks and maintaining interpersonal relationships within the group. Problems are seen as minor setbacks and the group works co-cooperatively to solve them.


This stage occurs when it becomes obvious to members that the group’s role is coming to an end. It may also occur for individuals who leave the group at an earlier stage in its development. In this stage members evaluate the achievements of the group and finalist outstanding issues. There is usually some confusion and concern about disengagement from the relationships formed over the life of the group. To disengage members are required to accept that the group is terminating; plan for the future by evaluating the knowledge and skills gained that can be transferred to work with other groups; assert one’s individuality and separateness from the group.


We have touched on different leadership styles, behaviors and techniques in the sections above. Not all leaders have the qualities or traits that you consider are necessary to be an effective leader. Some people have only a few of the traits, yet are effective leaders while others who possess many of those traits fail as leaders.

Leadership is the ability to lead. It is good leadership when it achieves the stated aims in an efficient and ethical way. The most important quality in a leader is intelligent decision. A sound leader has the ability to monitor the group, the environment and the aims and objectives and create the best outcome.


This resource was written by Ian Dewey