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Experience Drives Values and Ethics

As Executive Director of the National Outdoor Leadership School, John Gans has worked for the past 16 years to share his passion for the outdoors and education.

John Gans, chosen from a from a pool of more than 1,500 candidates nominated through the White House web site, was selected as a Champion of Change for the positive impact he is making in his community.


Our youth. Wilderness. Leadership. These are things I have always held passion for at my core. As a child, when I wasn’t helping my parents run the dairy farm, I was traipsing around in the creeks and woods of Minnesota. It was there that I developed my land ethic—my appreciation and love for the wilderness. This space is invaluable to our wellbeing as individuals and as a society. It’s where we get in touch with ourselves and realize our capabilities and limitations. It’s the best classroom in the world. A classroom where the lessons are experiential and the consequences are real, where we learn the value of our wild places, responsibility for our environment, and much more.

This is why I have spent so much of my life with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), where we teach wilderness skills, leadership, and environmental studies in these classrooms. I believe firmly in the potential of today’s youth to become positive, ethical leaders. They can change the world. At NOLS, I get to be involved in helping them discover their leadership potential and build higher levels of physical fitness. For 31 years I have been a part of this international school, where we make a difference in more than 16,500 students’ lives each year.

Long before I found my place at NOLS, I had a passion for experiential learning, for the outdoors and the potential for any of us to become a leader. In 1979, I helped found an experiential high school in New Hampshire. I have studied leadership at some of the nation’s most prestigious educational institutions, including business schools and my own student semester at NOLS. It was NOLS that I found fit my values most exactly. So I started instructing, teaching the very wilderness skills, environmental studies, and leadership progression I had experienced as a student. I never strayed from my belief in our vision, and now I have been executive director for 16 years.

It has been an exciting 16 years, bringing the NOLS education to a diverse student population around the world, helping students discover their leadership capabilities, their physical capabilities, their public lands, their potential. I’ve had the honor of integrating the Wilderness Medicine Institute into NOLS, allowing us to train 13,000 students in life-saving wilderness first aid skills each year. We created NOLS Professional Training, which tailors our curriculum to professional groups, enabling us to bring our training to NASA astronauts, Naval Academy midshipmen, federal land managers, international representatives, and more. I truly believe everyone should have access to their public lands; accordingly, I have also overseen the growth of our financial aid program by more than 300 percent.

My non-profit experience has inspired me to become involved in many areas where the values of youth, leadership, and wilderness are fused, from the board of the High Mountain Institute in Colorado to the founding board of the Rotary Community Foundation. I keep working for positive change, whether it is coaching Little League Baseball, parenting, or serving as a board member of our local hospital. Each of the roles provides an opportunity to encourage youth like my three children, give them a thriving planet in the future, and arm them with the leadership skills to do the same for their children.

John Gans is the Executive Director of the National Outdoor Leadership School.