"Being in nature can make us consider who we are, why we are here and where we are going"
Released from the banalities of the office, reconnecting with the outdoors can stimulate innovation We had reached the summit. After some moments of contemplation, my friend and colleague turned to me and said: I feel smaller up here, but I can see further. I want to be part of something that is great.
In the Lake District, atop Scafell Pike, he had experienced how the sheer beauty and vast scale of nature around us can help us sense our purpose and vocation, and grow our humility. It's also a place to see nature's systems at first hand, its interconnections, natural adaptation, recycling and inter-dependencies. Nature deficit disorder Last year the National Trust published its study into nature deficit disorder. It revealed a long-term and dramatic decline in children's relationship with the outdoors and wild places, warned of consequences for child development, health and well-being and called for urgent action lest a new generation is brought up with little empathy for the ecosystems around us. Worrying stuff, but is this only a malady of children? Might nature deficit disorder be a problem within our companies too?
A disconnect from nature threatens us doubly, both in the unsustainable society and economy that is created, and the new generation of leaders deprived of wild experiences and unable to create a sustainable vision. Nature-inspired leadership Can the wild really help develop better leaders? We know that being outdoors is good for physical health fitness, motor skills, coordination but can a good dose of the wild improve psychological capability too, and help develop the intellect, spirit and emotions required for the challenge ahead? Yes, according to David Williams, the CEO of the organisational development consultants impact International, based in the Lake District. For over thirty years, we have experienced how the great outdoors can inspire people and organisations to change and grow, he explains. Whether it's a beautiful vista, an extreme of weather, fellowship or a shared adventure, being in nature can make us consider who we are, why we are here and where we are going.
Stripped of our urban accoutrements and removed from our business hierarchy, we find ourselves focusing on what really matters - happiness, fulfilment and sustainability. It's an approach that has met with major success, and appealed to creative firms from around the world, including Google, Sony and Vodafone. We have run a number of experiential programmes with senior executives in natural environments such as the Lake District, explains Sony Mobile's head of human resources, Roy White. Once they overcome their pre-conceived ideas about tree hugging and, more worryingly, the view that work should not be enjoyable, we have consistently achieved great results. Working in this type of environment seems to give people a much more balanced sense of perspective on what is important. Their approach makes sense to me. When looking for new solutions and breakthroughs I often spend a day in the wild. It's worth twice as much as time spent in a creativity workshop.
A summer night navigating by starlight along an ancient ridgeway, or an autumn weekend spent climbing trees and sleeping in dens in the woods cleanses the mind of befuddling thoughts and confusions. I'm forced to test my resourcefulness, initiative and independence, but there's something more. The analytical mind disengages, and the creative and more intuitive brain begins to run free again. We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them said Albert Einstein, and in the magic of the great wood, or in the moonlight of the midnight sky, we are released from the banalities of team meetings, performance spread-sheets and production lines. New insights seep through and inspiration pops up with a flash. Random trains of thought unravel and interweave. New avenues of day dreaming and inquiry intermingle. Nature's playground is the perfect catalyst for lateral thinking, creativity and commitment.
I spent a few unhappy years working in a London office block, and most of the time I yearned to be out in a meadow or down at the ocean at dawn. It's human condition to need to connect to something larger, greater and more wondrous and, for some of us, wild places have become our holy places again. That's important because this is where we can reconnect with our intuition, seek answers and build our leadership inspiration. Williams thinks it is time to bring reconnection with nature to a far wider business audience. Impact has therefore supported the University of Cumbria to create a new institute for Leadership and Sustainability. It draws upon a century of tradition at the campus in the Lake District on learning in and from nature. As an academic institute, it will not only apply these techniques to its education, but will research them too.
To take this to the next level we must develop more ways for measuring the impact of experiencing the outdoors on people's personal and professional development, explains the institute's founder, Professor Jem Bendell. Nature on the doorstep So where are these wild places? We're not talking here about the Arctic or Amazon. The wild does not have to be exotic or distant. Many of these experiences, whether we are looking for discovery, activity, wonder or solitude, can be found much closer to cities than you might think. Often a local piece of woodland or stretch of river at dusk on a weekday can be as enchanting and wild as the Lake District on a Saturday afternoon. So travel is not a barrier and kit isn't either. The challenge to create and lead sustainable enterprises is a great one.
Can adventure in nature make us better leaders for that kind of challenge? Of course, there are many ways to enhance creativity, purpose and courage, without heading for the hills. But, for many, some regular time in the wilds can be a great form of urban detox. Away from frantic work pressures, constant consumerism, email overload and daily commutes, a big dollop of wilderness can work wonders for leadership and productivity.
Daniel Start is the author of the Wild Swimming series and the Wild Guide. This article was originally published in The Guardian newspaper.