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Expedition Leadership | Leadership Types | Leadership Skills
Leadership in 30 Days | Leadership Profiles

Tom Kiernan

Tom KiernanLeadership Position: President, National Parks and Conservation Association
NOLS Graduate: 1978 Wind River Mountaineering

Tom Kiernan’s Wind River Mountaineering course in 1978 set the stage for a career in environmental protection. Today, Tom is the president of the National Parks and Conservation Association. With 400,000 members, it is one of the largest conservation organizations in the world.

“My NOLS course very much changed my personal relationship with the world,” remembers Tom. “The mission of the school has played out to a certain extent in my life because the course ignited in me a desire to work to protect the wild places of the world.” Today, Tom guides the NPCA as the organization works to protect and preserve the nation’s parks and monuments. “I couldn’t have designed a better job for myself,” he says.

Although it has been more than two decades since Tom backpacked into the Wind River Mountains, the memories are still fresh. “I remember that two-thirds of the way through the instructors asked us what we’d like to do, what we’d like to learn in the last third of the course,” says Tom. “It was really a great experience, because we got to slide into a role of thinking through what we wanted to learn and to design the rest of the course.”

The design included a single-day quadruple traverse of several major summits in the Winds that started at dark and ended during the dark, and while it was very hard, “it was just an incredible day,” Tom reflects.

Today, Tom is still deeply connected with the school. In 1999, he was given the school’s alumni achievement award and several members of the NPCA’s board have affiliations with NOLS. Moreover, the lessons Tom learned at NOLS still run through his life.

As the leader of a large non-profit organization, Tom notes that he is continuing to refine and use leadership skills, but NOLS helped him in that role in 1978. “You learn how to lead in different environments, and you learn to broaden your leadership capabilities in those environments,” says Tom. “NOLS helped me build some of my leadership skills in a new environment.

“One of the things that one of my instructors advised if there was an emergency was to sit down for a minute and ‘smoke a cigarette,’” remembers Tom, citing an old lesson of Paul Petzoldt’s. “We are so inclined towards action sometimes, that that reminder from that course wonderfully translates to my work here. It’s important to think and then react. With that lesson, which I remember often, I can learn how to lead in times of stress, to make good judgments and to hone my judgment.”

Tom looks forward to the time when his children ages 11, 8 and 5, will have an opportunity to take a NOLS course. In the meantime, he gets out into the wilderness of the nation’s parks as often as he can, using the camping skills he learned in the Wind River Mountains. He is an avid boater and recently completed a lengthy expedition to the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Grad Profiles in Alphabetical Order

Pete Athans
Janice Bloom
David Breashears
Diane Brinkley
Carlos Buhler
Caroline Byrd
Archie Clemins
Columbia Crew
Mike DiDonna
Chris Gergen
John Grunsfeld
Ryan Hughes
Bruce Jacobsen
Sebastian Junger
Tom Kiernan
Alex Matthiessen
Tori McClure
Kitty Phillips
Guy Santiago
Tom Scott
Kat Taylor
Terri Watson
Louisa Willcox

Expedition Leadership | Leadership Types | Leadership Skills
Leadership in 30 Days | Leadership Profiles


Wind River Mountaineering brings you the whole spectrum of wilderness mountaineering. This includes rock climbing, snow climbing, glacier travel and the possibility of alpine ice climbing (late season in July depending on snow melt).
© Deborah Sussex

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