Leadership Ethics

The Outdoor Adventure Leader believes leadership that is not guided by a strong ethical commitment is not going to be effective leadership. For one to be an effective outdoor adventure leader, one must have clear understandings about the needed ethical principles.

Most professional communities (e.g., physicians, psychologists, anthropologists, counselors, etc.) have established a code of ethics for their practices. These ethical guidelines are created from within their professional communities, which makes them a form of self-governance.

Why does the outdoor adventure leadership industry not have an established code of ethics?

Here at The Outdoor Adventure Leader, it is believed a code of ethics should be established within the professional community of the outdoor adventure leadership industry. An established code of ethics is a sign of a mature industry, and help with the industry’s daily operations and overall healthy development.

Helping to establish an ethical code for the outdoor adventure leadership industry is at the heart of The Outdoor Adventure Leader’s mission and goals. All of the offered programs here are deeply rooted within a commitment to being ethical outdoor adventure leaders.


Many outdoor adventure leaders practice stewardship of the natural environment they work within and are dependent upon. Being committed to river restoration is a great example of ethical behavior by an outdoor adventure leader. Whether it is through the participation of an established river clean-up or organizing a needed one, this type of environmental restoration should be viewed as an ethical mandate of all outdoor adventure leaders. Rivers are the life-blood of this planet, and without healthy rivers, the entire natural environment will continue to degrade as a result of abuse and neglect.


Luckily, here in the U.S.A., we are removing dams from our rivers, and doing so on average of about forty a year. Healthy rivers cannot have large-scale dams built upon their beds and banks. This type of human development goes against the natural law of rivers and the larger hydrological cycle of our planet. Large-scale dams represent an ignorant and arrogant person-nature relationship, and ironically, a self-destructive one at that. It is vital for the ethical outdoor adventure leader to speak up for free flowing rivers and help to deconstruct the harmful dams that still remain within our watersheds. The ethical outdoor adventure leader helps to educate and reeducate the public about the truly destructive nature of dams upon our rivers and waterways.


One of the most universal ethical principles is to “do no harm.” Being true to this guiding ethical principle requires action! The outdoor adventure leader who sits on the sidelines of controversial issues like dams and other systemic natural environmental abuses, is participating in a form of collusion, which is directly responsible for the harm being done to our natural world. Therefore, non-action is a form of action, and within the context of being a steward of the natural environment it constitutes unethical behavior by the outdoor adventure leader.


The following are just some of the guiding questions for this pursuit of establishing an code of ethics for the outdoor adventure leadership industry:

  • What does it mean to be an ethical and responsible outdoor adventure leader?
  • Why is the ecological identity (the characteristics of the person-nature relationship) of the outdoor adventure leader an ethical issue, and how is it related to being an effective outdoor adventure leader?
  • What does it mean to lead people from their starting point, and why is it unethical to not do so?
  • What do “social and emotional intelligence” mean, and why are they so critical for being an effective and ethical outdoor adventure leader?
  • What is the difference between adaptive and maladaptive coping mechanisms, and what does this have to do with being an effective and ethical leader?
  • How does the outdoor adventure leader simultaneously balance the need of running a safe trip/program and also providing an atmosphere of having a great time? Why is this an ethical issue?
  • What are the most meaningful memories clients take home with them, and why is this critical to being an ethical outdoor adventure leader?
  • Why is the end of the trip/program experience just as critical as the beginning?
  • What are the ethical responsibilities of an outdoor adventure leader to the: one being lead or taught, company or outfit employed through, entire outdoor adventure industry, general public, and natural environment?
  • What is the difference between a boundary crossing and a boundary violation?
  • Why is the outdoor adventure leader’s level of competence so critical for being an ethical leader?

Within the code of ethics of other helping professionals, there is an intentional focus upon the nature of the interpersonal relationship between the helper and the one being helped. This is usually referred to within the context of respecting the needed professional boundaries. What does this mean for the outdoor adventure leader? Well, how an outdoor adventure leader interacts with the one being lead has strong ethical consequences for the immediate future of the particular outdoor adventure, the future of the entire outdoor adventure leadership industry, and the state of humanity; the quality of an outdoor adventure leader’s way of being has far reaching affects, which should not be underestimated.

The scout, at Blossom Bar rapid. This was a big moment for Jared White, for he had never paddled his own craft through this notorious rapid, he did outstanding!

We as outdoor adventure leaders are responsible for precious relationships. The ones we lead and teach are vulnerable to the power-differential that is inherent within our role as their leaders and teachers. This ethical responsibility should be a primary guiding force within our professional community.

The interpersonal behavior of outdoor adventure leaders have direct and indirect affects upon peoples’ lives. As outdoor adventure leaders, our way of being with our clients can have life-long affects upon their lives – either positively or negatively.

The Ethics of Outdoor Adventure Leadership

The outdoor adventure leadership industry does not currently have a code of ethics. There are potentially multiple reasons for this lack of a code of ethics, but it is safe to infer that the industry’s age (relatively young) has something to do with this omission. A code of ethics is generated from within an industry, and as any industry matures it realizes the need for a code of ethics. A code of ethics is a symbol of leadership, self-determination, and self-governance. One natural consequence of establishing a code of ethics is the industry insulates itself from top-down forms of oppressive governance (e.g., government involvement with industry standards and policies).

What is meant by the term ethics?

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource, “[t]he field of ethics (or moral philosophy) involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into three general subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Metaethics investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Metaethical answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves. Normative ethics takes on a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. This may involve articulating the good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behavior on others. Finally, applied ethics involves examining specific controversial issues, such as abortion, infanticide, animal rights, environmental concerns, homosexuality, capital punishment, or nuclear war” (2015). Using this description of ethics, this guide school will primarily be focused on the area of normative ethics, and how they are related to the outdoor adventure industry. However, since all three of these areas of ethics are interrelated, all three of them are on the table for exploration.

One of the most fundamental ethical principles is “to do no harm.” This simple ethical rule is common among all helping professions (e.g., medical healthcare, mental health professionals, etc.), and is based upon the Golden Rule of “one should do to others as one would want others to do to one’s self.” This starting point of exploring what it means to be an ethical outdoor adventure leader is based upon respect, reciprocity, and responsibility.

Responsibilities to the…

Within any established code of ethics, there are named stakeholders that the one following the code are responsible towards. It is the relationship between all involved parties that the code of ethics is attempting to help protect. At the most fundamental level, a code of ethics is designed to maintain the needed trust that supports any interpersonal relationship and sense of community between the stakeholders. One way to think about this ethical responsibility is to envision five circles, decreasing in size, laid on top of one another, which includes the: environment, public, industry, outfitter/company, and the client.SCAN0001

The Environment

Outdoor adventure leaders profit from the use of the natural environment, and therefore, it is an ethical responsibility to take care of the environment that makes the adventures possible. Stewardship is a basic characteristic of any competent outdoor adventure leader, and shows maturity as a community member of Nature and the Earth. Unfortunately, environmental issues have become extremely hot-topics of the political scene. The label “environmentalist” has become one associated with terrorism against capitalism. From a perspective that is outside the highly dramatized stage of politics, caring for the natural environment is just simple common sense; all life is dependent upon ecological integrity. Why would anyone not want to care for Nature? Can you see how potentially self-destructive some anti-environmentalist behavior truly is?

The competent and ethically grounded outdoor adventure leader is not only directly active in stewardship (e.g., river cleanups), but also acknowledges their role within the democratic system, which necessarily requires citizens to voice their concerns and their values. The democratic process requires informed and engaged citizens.


Much of the land outdoor adventure leaders operate upon is actually owned by the public, and therefore, the entire outdoor adventure leadership industry has an ethical responsibility to the public as the primary landowner. It is the voting public who ultimately decide what happens and what does not happen upon the public lands. For this reason, the competent outdoor adventure leader acknowledges this power of the people and acts responsible towards this relationship. From another perspective, the outdoor adventure leader has a universal ethical responsibility to the public, because the public represents the larger community the leader belongs to. Society is kept civil through social contracts, and outdoor adventure leaders must be aware that their use of public lands is a privileged and not an unconditional right. All privileges have responsibilities, which the privileged must maintain to keep the privilege active.


One’s behavior as an outdoor adventure leader potentially affects the entire industry. As an outdoor adventure leader, one has an ethical responsibility to one’s professional colleagues, even the ones not known personally. The ethical outdoor adventure leader understands their specific behavior has far reaching consequences within the entire industry of outdoor adventures. The competent leader recognizes their membership to the community of professionals and acts in a manner with the entire community in mind. Hypothetically, the more ethically responsible an industry is, the less top-down government interference the industry should experience. As an industry, conducting one’s operations in an ethically sound manner shows professional maturity to outsiders who may or may not have potential power over the industry and its members.

Outfitter/ Company

Often, the outfitter is not present on outdoor adventures, and this absentee ownership of the daily operations can lead to ethical issues. The ethically minded outdoor adventure leader acknowledges their fundamental responsibility to the outfitter/ company who they represent. There is a lot of trust involved with outfitters not being present on the trips they are ultimately responsible for. If an outdoor adventure leader, such as a river guide, does not behave in an ethically minded way they are potentially compromising the needed trust necessary for outfitters to employ outdoor adventure leaders who represent the company. Another way to view this particular aspect of outdoor adventure leadership ethics is to see the outfitter/company as just a micro level of the entire industry. The actions of a single outdoor adventure leader have potential consequences within the company, and the industry, which can reach far out into the future of how the particular outfitter interacts with their hired crew.


Considering the client-leader relationship is the basis for the existence of the entire outdoor adventure leadership industry, the competent leader should view this relationship as being primary to their ethical concerns, and protect it as something invaluable. Without the client there is no need for an outdoor adventure leader; without the client there is no outdoor adventure leadership industry. There is an inherent power-differential between the outdoor adventure leader and their client(s). This power-differential puts the outdoor adventure leader in a potential ethical dilemma. An outdoor adventure leader can cause harm to a client if the outdoor adventure leader’s actions are solely driven by self-interest. Clients can look up to their leader as somewhat of a “super-hero,” and this can lead to sexual attraction, which can lead to unethical boundary crossings. The outdoor adventure leader owes a lot of respect to their client(s), and the inherent power differential that exists can make this necessary respect potentially challenging.

Aspirational Guiding Principles

All ethics are meant to help guide one’s decisions and not necessarily meant to offer the answer to difficult ethical dilemmas. Ethics are meant to be aspirational. Meaning, ethics offer an ideal way of behaving, which the outdoor adventure leader should try to aspire to reach. It is suggested to view ethics as a practice just like the rest of the required skills for being a competent outdoor adventure leader. This is why it is so vital for an outdoor adventure leader to be highly self-aware and self-reflective, because without these two qualities it can be very difficult to know how one is progressing along the spectrum of achieving what is aspired to reach. The fact that being an ethically minded outdoor adventure leader is a practice, which happens with work and over time, lends itself to why open feedback should be a well-accepted norm within any effective group of outdoor adventure leaders. Meaning, if one’s colleagues are committed to being ethically minded, then their direct feedback should be helpful with one’s self-reflections about how one deals with potential ethical dilemmas.

Climate Change and Recreation

What is the ethical responsibility of the Outdoor Recreation Industry when it comes to dealing with climate Change?

What are the impacts of climate change upon the Outdoor Recreational Industry? And more importantly, what are the impacts of the Outdoor Recreational Industry upon climate change?

To view a presentation on the above questions as to the relationship between climate change and the Outdoor Recreational Industry, follow this link to a Google Slides Presentation Eric Peterson gave at the Southern Oregon Climate Change Now (SOCAN) Rogue Basin Climate Summit in 2015.

Here is a link to a video of the actual SOCAN presentation on Recreation at the Rogue Basin Climate Summit in 2015.

If you are a practicing outdoor adventure leader or involved with an academic program in outdoor adventure leadership, then we want to hear your thoughts on establishing the much needed code of ethics for our professional community. Thank you!


All content within this website is copyrighted to The Outdoor Adventure Leader, 2015.