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OUTWARD BOUND for executives; Where 'corporate climbing' means a 80-foot cliff

America's corporate image may have been given a karate chop by the likes of Japan and West Germany, but now many companies are fighting back under the banner ''Your disability is your opportunity.''

That is the maxim of Kurt Hahn, founder in 1941 of International Outward Bound (OB) survival schools. He believed in overcoming self-imposed limitations, confronting new problems, discovering unexploited resources, and prevailing over adverse circumstances.

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His learning-by-striving method has worked for over 80,000 students in seven US schools since 1962. Now Kahn's concept is being reworked to give ''desk jockeys'' a swift kick in their productivity. To the basic course of sailing, rock climbing, and obstacle courses have been added such concepts as group dynamics, stress management, creative leadership styles, decisionmaking, and goal-setting.

The new course offers the same rigorous outdoor living as a means to develop self-confidence and teamwork. But new ideas have been drawn from North Carolina's Center for Creative Leadership, a research foundation for executive leadership. And ideas on stress management have come from Outward Bound research at Dartmouth College.

''No, this isn't an 'I'm-OK-you're-OK' pop psychology in the wilderness,'' says instructor John Spencer, who helped develop the programs. ''We've kept the essential OB course, but just tailored it to the demands of the workplace.''

Such companies as Xerox, Dayton Power & Light, Martin Marietta, and Prime Computer have run groups through the new course. The US Olympic volleyball team is slated to go through the managers' program. Cadets from the US Coast Guard Academy already have. And the results, by most accounts, have scaled great heights. Enrollees find themselves submitting proposals for projects they would never have dreamed of in their pre-Outward Bound days. This includes everything from multimillion-dollar designs for company expansion to dashing in and demanding a raise. It also includes huge gains in employee on-the-job satisfaction which have translated into quantum leaps of the golden indicator: productivity.

On the 90-minute trip from Rockland, Maine, to the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, benevolent and bearded ''Captain Ed'' Dietrich dodges his 50-foot motor vessel around eiders, cormorants, seals, and lobster-pot buoys. He extols the transformation in character brought about by the school. Taxiing the students or corporate clients out and back, he's in a position to know. ''Going out they're quiet, nervous, gnarled, and anxious,'' he says. ''Coming back, you wouldn't recognize most of them - outgoing, talkative to a fault, confident.''

But stepping off the boat onto this two-mile perimeter of silent geology, one wonders about the choice of names. Hurricane? This seems far from the ultimate survival school where the toughest of the tough take on the wilderness and the elements to conquer nature while they conquer themselves. It seems too serene for even a civilian boot camp.

Standing knee-deep in yellow hankweed, white stitchwort, and gnats under a scorching 3 o'clock sun, this looks more like a sleepy island resort. One soon learns, however, that the tempests encountered by Outward Bound-goers are the mostly mental struggles to triumph over perceived hardships. It's easy to watch, something else to participate.

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At one end of the island is the ''ropes'' course. This is a sort of abandoned Swiss Family Robinson obstacle course of ropes, logs, and pipes high in the pines, on which students learn problem solving, patience, and concentration. Beyond that is the abandoned granite quarry, whose 80-foot vertical face is traversed in both directions by every student - a study in conquering fear.

Down at Valley Cove, ketch-rigged sailboats bob at anchor. Their crews, coed groups of all ages and races (each group of a dozen or so is known as a ''watch''), seem straitjacketed in their obligatory orange life jackets.

Crunching down crushed-shell paths past quiet tidal pools, you pass groups of 10 or 12 foraging for mussels, clams, and ''sea wheat.'' They are preparing for two- and three-day ''solos'' during which each will be given minimal provisions and left alone to forage or fast - and confront himself. Aspiring Euell Gibbonses are overheard extolling the virtues of yarrow and thistle for salads, jewelweed for tea, beach peas and sourgrass for snacks. Every now and then, members of an endurance marathon come tearing by and disappear beneath the spruce.

Wooden-floored tents dot the gentle hill rising above the quiet harbor. And just down the path from the waterside mess hall is The Wall: 14 feet of vertical timber to be scaled as a lesson in group cooperation.

From all these elements the school weaves together its 5- to 26-day courses, designed for adolescents to adults. The idea is to challenge oneself mentally and physically, to overcome obstacles and limitations and learn to succeed. ''We teach through the activity, not to the activity,'' says one instructor.

Designed to be successfully completed by the average, slightly out-of-shape executive, the management course is not as rigorous as the standard 26-day affairs for adolescents and young adults. Anything more strenuous ''would be counterproductive. The idea is to see that participants overcome situations they believe exceed their capabilities,'' says the instructor.

Bob Rheault, the silver-maned Sea program director, who is a former colonel of the Green Berets in Vietnam, explains the elements of the management model.

Although Outward Bound's managers' courses are still developing - they're ''in an embryonic stage,'' he says - they have designed one basic course to last eight days. They will even tailor it to suit particular companies' needs. Woven into the standard format are the additional presentations, lectures, and discussions. The Outward Bound outdoor ''laboratory'' gives prospective managers the added advantage of a stage on which to perform, discuss, and perfect various models of leadership or whatever - bettering the book or classroom where the concepts exist on paper in the abstract.

''If you listen to this stuff in a lecture, you'd be bored to death half the time,'' says Mr. Spencer. ''But if you're outdoors about ready to try what you've just learned, it makes a difference. That's it in a nutshell.'' Problem No. 1

On the first day, a watch confronts its first management problem: Get one of the 15-foot sailboats from shore to a mooring 400 yards into the bay. No instructions.

''It's a messy, sloppy performance, usually,'' Spencer says. ''They're suddenly facing all this stuff they don't know how to deal with - oars, anchors, sails, and strangers. Somebody who is very competent in his own field at home now has to manage a situation that not only he doesn't understand, his 'subordinates' don't understand.''

Once the task has been accomplished and they have reached the mooring, discussion begins.

One thing they learn is that one athletic but shy man once raced sailboats in Maryland.

''Did you tell anyone?'' he is asked.

''They didn't ask,'' he says.

''They didn't know to ask.''

The discussion leads into tips on initiative for employees, checking resources for managers, feedback and communication for both.

Leadership styles are assessed: Who took control? Why? Who followed? How much cooperation was there? With questions freshly in mind, it's the perfect lead-in for a mini-lecture on leadership. Spencer, the course instructor, repeats the concerns of management echoed in books from ''The Peter Principle'' to ''Parkinson's Law.''

''People rising to the top in management often got there because they were excellent at what they did - as engineers, or technicians, for instance - not because they knew how to lead, or deal with people,'' he says.

Out comes the Leader Effectiveness and Adaptability Description (LEAD) model, made famous by authors Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard. In graph form it describes four styles of management, roughly: teaching, coaching, encouraging, and delegating. They're based on how much leader and follower know about their task, and how willing each is to perform it.

''Out in the boat, when the assigned watch captain must decide what to do, it's a perfect time to plug into the model and show them how it works,'' says Spencer. ''Since neither the 'leader' nor the crew know very much about their craft, it would be a bad time to get dictatorial and start delegating tasks. It would be a good time to have group input - so that no matter what happens, each shared in the decision.'' Communication and feedback

''Throughout the course, we are always teaching them the benefits of communication and feedback,'' Bob Rheault says. ''They overlap into all areas - they're important to alleviate stress, to assess leadership, group goal-setting, and harmony.''

Enrollees are asked to discuss examples of good and bad communication in the workplace. They are taught the benefits of self-expression - ''the very simple, direct action of expressing preferences, thoughts, and feelings'' - in avoiding needless stress. ''Empathic assertion'' expresses empathy for another's concerns. ''I and you'' techniques separate perceived transgressions from the person. Nonverbal components such as waving of hands, facial expression, and posture can vastly change the meaning of the message.

Most important, the class adjourns to The Wall to practice what's been preached. The Outward Bound philosophy says scaling this is the perfect microcosm to assess the group's overall ability to communicate and test problem solving as well as leadership ability.

''OK, let's get the girls over first,'' says a bearded man who takes the initiative. Later, this is singled out in discussion guided to be as uncritical as possible.

''We needed someone to take the initiative,'' says one. ''I thought he was too abrasive,'' says another. ''He came on like he knew everything, when he didn't know any more than the rest of us.''

''Did you speak up at the time?'' the instructor asks.

''Well, no. I wanted to say something but I felt it was better not to.''

The instructor points out assumptions in the ''girls first'' statement - from ''women are less capable of contributing physically or with suggestions'' to ''those that occupy lower-ranking jobs have lesser mentalities, can't make decisions as well as management.''

The watch is divided into two groups for future tasks. Members of each group will ask members of the other for future feedback sessions. They will watch for passivity, subordination, leadership, dominance. One rule: three pieces of positive feedback for each piece of negative. This reinforces another important concept of not only looking for positive attributes in fellow workers, but also having practice in giving it. Psychological testing

''One new element with which to interpret group behavior is that we give them two psychological tests before they come which we interpret while they're here, '' says Mr. Rheault. The tests are well known in the field of human relations - the FIRO-B and the Briggs-Myers.

Enrollees answer questions on how much they like to join other people, take charge, and express affection. They also answer questions on how much they desire people to join them, control them, and get close and personal.

''We use it as a way for helping people . . . it's a window onto your personality, how you behave, how you go about seeing the world, interpreting it, both from a filtering point of view and a processing point of view,'' says Spencer. ''How does one gather information? Does he sense it, meaning measure it in a way. Or does he intuit it, which is sort of guess and go by feel.''

''When it comes time to make decisions out on the boat,'' Spencer says, ''people can realize the vast gaps from which they are approaching the same decisions. Awareness of where the other person is coming from can help close the gap.''

Thus, ''thinkers'' are more apt to want to have dinner on the boat to save time, avoid the mosquitoes on land, and achieve their destination sooner. ''Feelers,'' on the other hand, are apt to forgo those goals to stand on shore cooking clams over an open fire while watching the sunset, to take in ''pure experience.'' ''Neither is right or wrong, of course,'' Spencer says. ''But realizations about different character makeups can eliminate the 'that-person-is-an-idiot' syndrome.'' The somewhat contrived lab can produce humorous results, he says: ''You'll often hear someone mutter, 'these low expressed-control types, you've got to keep your eye on them.' Everyone laughs, it's a crowd unifier - but the knowledge they take back to the office is useful.'' Stress management

''We're doing a stress-management model which uses communication as the mediation for the stress. That's what will help you cope with it,'' says Tom Spich, who, with Dr. Michael Gaylor, has researched the topic at Dartmouth. The stress comes about from ''not having feedback on what really is happening. It's cycling misinformation around between your ears instead of finding out about the thing that's affecting your reactions.'' One of the very best methods to circumvent stress is communication and feedback, he says.

''It's very typical to have 12 people on one of our boats, half of which are exhilarated, half freaked out,'' Mr. Spich says. ''It's an identical experience, but their perceptions are different. Perceptions are information-dependent, and they can change.

''Maybe they don't have enough information about sailing; they think the boat's going to tip over. They don't know what the boundaries of safety are. So you give them new information. Maybe they think that the boat is going to go so fast they're going to fall out. So you give them information that if they sit down they're not going to fall out. They just need the same kind of information that the people who are enjoying the experience (have),'' Spich says. Goal-setting

''We save lectures on goal-setting to last,'' says Spencer. ''We want people to realize that what they've learned here is to be utilized back in their real lives at the office, home, wherever.''

First, students are taught the dangers of setting too high a goal. It isn't how much you improve that's important, say Outward Bound instructors, it's the direction you are moving.

''Inching your way up an incline is much more successful for 99 percent than trying to leap six feet, make it, but fall back three,'' says Spencer. ''It's setting up the pattern of behavior of bite-size chunks, munching them, and knowing they can chew them. People see results and they feel capable. You can't help but think of yourself as a succeeder.''

And Outward Bound tries to get clients to duplicate their experience at home - to try it on the friends, family, and at work.

''Often we get somebody saying, 'I'm going to put my department together differently' or 'I realize I haven't had a talk with my second-level managers in a long time. They've never met my wife or kids. I'll have them all over for a barbecue to let them see that this course has really changed me.' ''

Most important, instructors say, Outward Bound emphasizes the difference between transactional leadership - that is, manipulation of people, goods, money for ends - and transformational leadership. That develops the potential of the individual to attempt greater things than he thought possible.

''That's where I see Outward Bound perhaps cracking the hatch on the great management submarine,'' says Spencer.

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