Published: May 4, 2023

Experiential, active, and applied learning have long been a cornerstone of leadership education and development in higher education (Priest & Clegorne, 2015). Experiential learning shifts the focus of the educational process from a knowledge-transfer approach to one in which the student is an active participant in the learning process (Kolb & Kolb, 2006). It is a powerful tool for developing leaders because it encourages and challenges students to step out of their comfort zones, take risks, and learn from their successes and failures. By providing opportunities for problem-solving, decision-making, and teamwork, experiential education helps students develop the essential leadership qualities of communication, collaboration, and adaptability. Lastly, it fosters self-awareness and reflection, allowing leaders to recognize and address their strengths and weaknesses, and develop a growth mindset.

At the CU Boulder Center for Leadership (CFL), experiential learning aligns with our philosophy of developing leaders—the best way to learn to lead is to practice leading. The Spring 2023 Experiential Leadership Intensive (ELI) provided just this opportunity—using the outdoors to practice leadership—for 12 undergraduate students from six different affiliate leadership programs and the Center for Character and Leadership Development at the US Air Force Academy (as part of our Education Partnership Agreement). Held at the scenic Sylvan Dale Ranch, located at the start of the Big Thompson Canyon outside Loveland, CO, the ELI was an overnight camping, two-day, immersive group experience in an outdoor mountain setting that offered challenge and uncertainty. Students engaged in small team exercises that included an orienteering race, a leadership reaction course, and a facilitated values-based fireside discussion.

Here's what our student leaders had to say about the experience…

“I do a lot of classroom work, but I don’t get to go out very often and practice new types of leadership, so the experiential part of this was very valuable.”

ELI students participating in a leadership reaction course“I really needed this. For the past year I have been put in positions to lead and advise others, but I recognize I have so much to still learn and grow, and that’s exciting.”

“The leadership reaction course was the most valuable component for truly learning new aspects of leadership and areas I can grow…with direct and honest feedback and reflection.”

“The values-based discussion was the most valuable piece for me. Discovering who I am through how I receive ideas and how mine are received by others is important to growing in my emotional intelligence and wisdom.”

“Overall, it was a good experience, though the physical aspects were hard for me. It pushed me in a way I needed to be pushed and forced me to fail so I could see where I am lacking in leadership.”

“This weekend helped create strong relationships and has solidified my confidence that I can make lasting connections in ways that are very healthy.”

These student reflections capture the essence of experiential leadership development and underscore the power of learning in the outdoors. The Experiential Leadership Intensive (ELI) program is offered in the fall and spring semesters each year.


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Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2006). Learning styles and learning spaces: A review of the multidisciplinary application of experiential learning theory in higher education. In R. R. Sims & S. J. Sims (Eds.), Learning styles and learning (pp. 45-91). Nova Science Publishers.

Priest, K. L., & Clegorne, N. A. (2015). Connecting to experience: High-impact practices for leadership development. In J. Owens (Ed.), New directions for student leadership special issue: Innovative learning for leadership development (145, pp. 71-83). Wiley Periodicals.