Leader competence: 4 ways to make sure leaders have the right skills and knowledge

The Australian Adventure Activity Standards (AAS) suggests four ways on how to make sure leaders have the right skills and knowledge.

These are:

  • ‘a peer recognition and verification process’,
  • ‘outdoor sector or organisational accreditation system’,
  • ‘training qualifications and/or a training course’
  • or ‘leader registration schemes’.

It also allows for suitable adjustment of what skills and knowledge leaders require depending on the actual circumstances, as we all know that one size does not fit all.

The key to understanding leader competence is to consider:

  • What skills and knowledge does a leader need for the specific context of the activity?
  • What is the most suitable way to make sure the leader has the needed skills and knowledge?

Competent leaders improve safety

Dependent participants (see explanation of dependent participants here) may not have the skills and knowledge to keep themselves safe. So, it is critical that adventure activity leaders leading activities with dependent participants have the right skills and knowledge to manage their own safety and the safety of others.

Activity providers are best placed to decide the skills and knowledge needed

The same type of activity can differ in context. For example:

  • there are differences in the competencies needed to run rock climbing on an artificial climbing wall to rock climbing on a cliff face
  • bushwalking can vary such as day walks or overnight, on a well-worn track or off track through dense scrub, with students or people living with an intellectual disability.

The competence a leader needs depends on many factors. So, it is up to the activity provider to consider those factors and then decide on what competencies a leader in that situation needs. The Australian AAS notes this in the Core Standard v1.7 on page 35 Core Good Practice Guide v1.8.1 page 27: “Providers MUST determine the competencies required by activity leaders based on the context of the activity.”

Leaders need to be competent

Leaders can get experience, skills and knowledge in many ways. They may have gained it through others showing them what to do, reading a book, watching a video or trial and error. This could have been improved through active participation such as ‘personal trips’ and ‘other experience’. Some might have even done a training course. Getting the competence necessary to be a leader is likely to come from a variety of ways.

If competence is gained through different methods, then for example, needing to have a TAFE qualification to show you are competent, is not a method that will work in every situation. That is why the Australian AAS focuses on the ‘competence of the leader’ and not ‘leader qualifications’: “Providers responsible for the delivery of an activity MUST be responsible for selecting suitably competent persons to lead and supervise that activity.” Core Good Practice Guide v1.8.1 page 28 Core Standard v1.7 page 36.

Four methods to check leader competence

The Australian AAS suggests 4 methods of how to ensure leaders are competent:

“The pathways used for recognising competence may include but are not limited to:

  • training qualifications and/or a training course
  • outdoor sector or organisational accreditation system
  • leader registration scheme
  • peer recognition and verification process.

A combination of pathways may be used.” (Core Good Practice Guide v1.8.1 page 29 Core Standard v1.7 page 37)

A very common means of determining leader competence is via a “peer recognition and verification process”. This usually has a member or members who are competent and experienced leaders, verifying a potential leader’s skills and knowledge before they are can lead dependent groups.

Some organisations and groups have their own “organisational accreditation system” to ensure leaders, coaches, instructors, facilitators etc. have the appropriate skills and knowledge. The context in which these are issued might be very specific situations (e.g. running rock climbing on a specific climbing tower) or more general situations (e.g. guide kayaking on class 3 rivers).

While a qualification is one way an activity provider might recognise a leader’s competence, it is not the only way.

Training units list skills and knowledge needed

The AAS refer to training units to show the skills and knowledge recommended for many dependent participant situations. This can be modified by the activity provider depending on the specific activity context and requirements. It is important that activity providers have appropriate reasons where recommended leader’s skills and knowledge are not required by leaders. In all cases the skills and knowledge should be relevant. For example, there may be no need to have competencies for ‘compass navigation skills’ when the activity is on a ‘paved and sign posted footpath’. But having bushwalking ‘land based navigation’ skills is likely to be insufficient to be competent in ‘marine navigation’ for sea kayaking.

Many organisations do not have the resources to develop their own skill and knowledge lists. Even if they did, having everyone create their own list from scratch is inefficient. It is far easier and more efficient to amend an existing skills and knowledge list to fit the context.

Leader competence summary

The key points are:

  • The AAS is designed for situations where they are dependent participants – a good starting first question to ask is ‘are the participants dependent participants?’
  • The AAS provides recommended units that describe the ‘skills and knowledge’ for leading groups of dependent participants
  • Activity providers need to decide what skills and knowledge is appropriate for their own context and circumstances – this might vary the units and/or particular ‘skills and knowledge’ needed
  • Activity providers need to use some method to check that leaders have the required competence – there are four recognition pathways to choose from and this might use a combination of methods


Note: Post edited 4 Oct 2018 to update the page references and change the keyword “shall” to “must”.

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