Extreme Leadership

Three schools create challenging programs that plunge students into intense explorations of leadership.
Extreme Leadership

Business has largely abandoned its vision of a leader as a captain of command-and-control decision making—the one who stands alone, points the way with confidence, and expects others to follow. But what, then, does makes a great leader?

Three schools have developed courses that delve into this question by immersing students in difficult, complex and ethically charged leadership challenges. These experiences are designed to be eye-opening for students, in ways that encourage them to question their long-held beliefs, adjust their definitions of leadership, and push the boundaries of their own leadership potential.  

Asking the Big Questions

Curriculum Emphasis on Social Responsibility
Leeds School of Business
The University of Colorado, Boulder

In today’s climate, few business educators would deny the importance of integrating ethical leadership into the curriculum. The question, however, is how to do so in a way that’s memorable and meaningful for students.

Faculty at the Leeds School wrestled with that question after the Leeds family made a gift to the school that was specifically earmarked for the development of several required courses in business values and social responsibility. The school used those funds to create the Curriculum Emphasis on Social Responsibility (CESR) program, which it launched in 2005. Currently a suite of eight required and elective courses for undergraduates and MBA students, CESR is designed to immerse students in the complexities of ethical decision making.

“The world comprises many good people who just haven’t known the right questions to ask. They’ve never asked, ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’” says Donna Sockell, who directs CESR and was instrumental in the design of its courses. “Students know how to get an A in a course, and they know that certain behaviors will get them into trouble. But they’re rarely forced to take responsibility for their own day-to-day conduct.”

In the CESR curriculum, students examine the global, environmental, and societal implications of business and the variety of factors that affect the decisions business leaders make every day. The objective of this examination, says Sockell, is to help students realize the lasting and far-reaching impact of their own decisions.

It’s About Choices

The CESR undergraduate curriculum begins with “Introduction to Business,” a required course for freshmen. The course requires students to ask themselves what kinds of business leaders they hope to become, says Sockell. During their junior year, students take “Business Applications of Social Responsibility,” a required interdisciplinary course that centers on discussion of the role of business in society. Students prepare oral and written presentations in which they take stands on how business should behave and outline their personal values.

Sockell explains that the curriculum presents students with modern ethical dilemmas, so that they begin to ask themselves the big questions. For instance, should a company simply comply with the law? Or is it a business’s responsibility to do more? CESR is designed to help students grapple with questions like these and make more conscious, deliberate, and ultimately more responsible choices, Sockell says.

The last piece in the CESR required curriculum is a capstone course, where seniors focus on ethics in their chosen business disciplines.

It’s amazing to see these juniors and seniors stand up to the CEO of a billion-dollar company and say, ‘You made a mistake.’ —Donna Sockell, The University of Colorado, Boulder

In addition to those three courses, students can choose among three electives. In “Global Small Business: Learning Through Service,” students correspond with Peace Corps volunteers in seven countries, as well as with microcredit organizations Friendship Bridge and ACCION International, and conduct research to examine the challenges small businesses face in emerging economies. In “Finding Business Opportunities in a Resource-Challenged World,” students investigate case studies that explore how businesses not only cope with global environmental challenges, but also turn them into successful enterprises.

The program’s most intense and dramatic elective is “Leadership Challenges: Exercises in Moral Courage.” The course is based on separate visits of six high-level executives who present dilemmas they have faced—ones that served as “defining moments” in their careers because they were particularly difficult to handle emotionally, politically, and ethically. Sockell works with the executives to write about and discuss their stories in way that explains the problems without giving away their eventual solutions.

The class meets once every two weeks, devoting two periods to a single problem. In one class, an executive provides a written context for the difficult decision he or she had to make. Over the following two weeks, four teams of six students each meet outside class to study the problem, discuss its ethical implications, and choose what they believe to be the most responsible solution. Then, in the next class, they present their solutions to the executive, who critiques their approaches before revealing how the problem was actually handled.

The course also includes surprise visits from local executives who present students with “pop dilemmas,” which outline problems they’ve faced. Students then immediately break into discussion groups and design their own solutions. These surprise visits serve to show students that not every ethical problem is preceded by a case study and two weeks of discussion, Sockell says. “As executives, they’ll be making snap decisions on a daily basis,” she adds. “With the pop dilemmas, we’ve tried to simulate that environment.”

Executives have come to the class from companies such as BP Lubricants America and Target Corporation. The dilemmas they present run the gamut. Should a manager accept a bribe in an industry where bribery is commonplace? Would a company violate its code of ethics by holding a business luncheon at Hooters, a mainstream restaurant whose trademark is scantily clad waitresses? Or should a company locate its South American plant in an unsafe neighborhood where most of its employees reside, or in a safer neighborhood where employees would have to travel farther to get to work?

What’s so powerful, says Sockell, is how engrossed students become in these problems and how passionate they are during their presentations. And once they learn the real-life ending to the story, they are not shy about criticizing the result. “It’s amazing to see these juniors and seniors stand up to the CEO of a billion-dollar company and say, ‘You made a mistake,’” says Sockell.

It’s that kind of intimacy that makes the course incredibly selective—it accommodates only 24 students. Faculty and staff nominate students for the course, and Sockell selects the final 24. “These executives ae discussing moments that are very personal, and we want to create an environment where they can talk about their private feelings and struggles at the time,” she says. “We also want to present executives with students who are the most capable of tackling intellectual challenges.”

It’s Not About ‘Teaching Ethics’

The CESR curriculum continues into the MBA program with two electives: “Topics in Sustainability” and “Social Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets.” With courses like these fully established across the curriculum, the Leeds School plans to quantify the effects these courses have on students’ outlooks and behaviors.

The program is working with researchers at schools in the United Kingdom and Japan to survey students before and after their study of business values and social responsibility. The goal is to ensure that these experiences actually inform students’ decision making after graduation.

These courses aren’t designed to “teach ethics,” Sockell emphasizes. Instead, they’re designed to teach students to ask questions about what they think businesses should be doing in society—should they be improving the environment, maximizing shareholder profit, or both? Should they be trying to solve problems such as poverty? “We want to give them all the permutations,” says Lorna Christoff, CESR’s program coordinator. “Then we say to them, ‘OK, now you choose what you will do.’”

The purpose of the climb is to push students beyond what they perceive to be their personal limits and what they think they could ever accomplish.

To the Mountaintop and Back

“Leadership on the Edge”
Bloomsburg University College of Business
Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania

The Bloomsburg University College of Business takes its students to the mountaintop—quite literally. As part of its “Leadership on the Edge” program, ten to 12 first-year MBA students climb the “Knife Edge,” a rocky ridge atop the 5,268-foot-high Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park. The students make the climb as part of an organizational behavior course taught by Darrin Kass.

For the last two years, Kass has scheduled the climb for September during Labor Day weekend. On Friday, students make the 12-hour drive to a site near the base of the mountain. They set up camp there on Friday and Saturday nights to prepare for the expedition; they complete the climb on Sunday and return on Monday.

The climb builds the group’s leadership and team-building skills, says Kass. It also helps each student develop courage and self-awareness—key components of effective leadership—before classes even begin.

Dramatic Learning

Before the trip, students break into three teams that are responsible for either planning the schedule for the climb, buying the groceries, or gathering the appropriate gear. Students also prepare for the challenges they’ll face with a high-ropes course run by Quest, a leadership development program at Bloomsburg University.

Guiding students on the climb are Kass and Roy Smith, director of Quest. Kass and Smith are there not only to bring the students through the experience safely, but also to remind them of their responsibilities to the group. For example, stronger, faster hikers often move far ahead of the group in the beginning, Kass explains. But soon, they learn that they can be of greater service to the team if they stay back to help others succeed than if they become the first to make it to the top. 

Kass teaches two sections of organizational behavior each fall, but only one section makes the climb. Students who self-select into the climbing section understand they will be hiking up and down a mountain, but they think it will “just be a really long walk,” says Kass. They don’t realize how difficult the climb will be. To finish, they’ll have to scramble up and down steep and craggy rock faces, keep their balance in 25 mile-per-hour winds, navigate paths along 1,000-foot drops, and endure the nine-hour climb to the top and the seven-hour descent down the other side.

Students also must conquer “The Notch,” a valley of jagged rocks that climbers refer to as the “hardest mile” of the trail. The Notch serves as one of the most dramatic moments of the experience, says Kass, who requires students to decide as a group how will they navigate the terrain. They can choose the quicker but steeper path, but all team members must possess the strength to support their own body weight as they climb down a knotted rope. Or they can choose the less steep path, which is safer but more arduous and requires all team members to slowly and painstakingly navigate a morass of jutting rock. The point of this trip isn’t to train students to become mountain climbers—although by the end, they have more experience in that area than they ever expected. The purpose, says Kass, is to push them beyond what they perceive to be their personal limits and what they think they could ever accomplish.

A Film for Fund Raising

The trip is expensive to offer—although students pay only $50 each to make the climb, the true cost of the trip is between $6,000 and $8,000 for the group. For that reason, Kass is always seeking donor support. Last year, he received a grant from alumna Barbara Hudock, a founding partner of Pennsylvania-based Hudock-Moyer Wealth Management, to create a 60-minute documentary of the 2008 climb. The film, also titled “Leadership on the Edge,” chronicles the group’s experience.

The film has been instrumental in fund raising, says Kass. “Not everyone immediately sees the value in experiential learning like this,” he says. “But the film shows the persona journeys these students take, the way they must overcome their fears. Donors who believe in leadership development see its value.”
During the 2008 climb documented in the film, for example, many of the students wanted to quit, but others cheered them on. In the film, one young Russian woman, Tatiana, is especially challenged at The Notch, where her fear of falling down the rock face is too much—she bursts into tears. But when her teammates guide her footing and offer moral support, she eventually makes it and joins the rest of the group.

Such experiences develop what Kass and Smith call “servant leaders”—leaders whose mission is to serve the needs of the group and who know that the team must make it up the mountain together. At the end of the film, students realize that making it to the top of the mountain would be an empty victory if they had to leave even one person behind in the process.

Redefining Leadership

Many students come to unexpected realizations about the definition of leadership as well. For instance, one of Kass’ students who participated in the 2008 climb was Maryann, the manager of a counseling agency. In the film, she notes that she was used to being in complete control of her staff and its direction. “On the Knife Edge, I was out of control. I was not in my element,” she says. “And it was people who had no experience as managers, who were just out of undergraduate school, who had the ability to get us to the summit.”

Others in that group realize that even those who struggle can provide inspiration to the group as a whole. Michael, one of the stronger climbers profiled in the film, is particularly inspired by Tatiana’s struggle to complete the climb.

“I looked at her and thought, ‘I’m in so much pain, but she is in ten times more mental anguish than I am in,’” he says. As he watched her overcome her fears, he adds, it inspired him to keep going even when he wanted to quit.

By tackling Katahdin, students learn the dynamics of teams and leadership, Kass emphasizes. They also learn to deal with unexpected obstacles. During the 2008 climb, for instance, the group was besieged by a hailstorm. In 2009, one student injured her knee and needed to lean on others to complete the climb. In each scenario, students must grapple with the situation at hand and think through their next steps—just as they’ll have to do throughout their careers. 

Kass would like more students to make this climb, but its sheer magnitude makes that prospect difficult—it takes him at least two weeks to recover from the trip. But he is considering taking a second class on a winter expedition up Mount Washington, the highest peak in the White Mountain range in New Hampshire.

Kass compares the “Leadership on the Edge” experience to programs like “Outward Bound,” which leads groups on expeditions into the wilderness to encourage self-discovery and build character. “No traditional field trip,” he says, “will help students get down to what it really takes to lead.”

Not So Smooth Sailing

Goizueta Advanced Leadership Academy
Goizueta Business School
Emory University
Atlanta, Georgia

Business leaders are often asked to “take the helm,” but few quite so literally as participants in the Goizueta Advanced Leadership Academy (GALA). The semester long leadership development program for second-year MBAs ends with an intense capstone experience—a five-day sailing excursion around the British Virgin Islands. The trip is designed to push students far beyond their comfort zones and into their potential as leaders, says Kore Breault, the school’s senior associate director of development.

Only 30 of Goizueta’s 200 MBA students were selected to participate in GALA in 2010, Breault explains. Applicants to the program each submit a leadership development plan and a statement of intent, and then interview with a GALA graduate. Those chosen for the spring program take part in experiential learning exercises, such as ropes courses, orienteering challenges, and improvisation exercises. They also hear a variety of guest speakers who discuss their own leadership challenges.

In April, students traveled with faculty and executive advisors to the British Virgin Islands to complete the course’s final project. Goizueta works with Florida-based Offshore Sailing School to design and oversee the sailing challenges. Once students arrive, Offshore instructors teach them the basic sailing terms and techniques they’ll need to know to sail the boats themselves.

After some practice, students form teams, each taking charge of a boat where they’ll put their newfound knowledge to the test. For the next five days, under the guidance of advisors and Offshore instructors, they complete a series of sailing competitions. For example, one day in this year’s challenge, student teams had to sail their crafts around a number of islands and make it to the finish line within a certain time frame. Another day, they had to complete a journey between two points—without speaking to each other.

Students are told what each day’s task will be the night before, so they can strategize the best approaches with their teams. They also frequently change roles—one day a student might be the captain; the next, the ship’s cook.

Most students come to the sailing challenge with no prior sailing backgrounds, which only intensifies the experience says J.B. Kourish, the school’s associate dean of full-time and evening MBA programs. The point of the program’s structure, Kourish explains, is to teach students to cope with stress, uncertainty, and change.
“They have to deal with ambiguity and make decisions on the fl, while keeping an eye on what their competitors are doing,” says Kourish. “They have to make their own decisions and choose their behaviors based only on what they see happening around them, just as they’ll have to do in the real business world.”
Phil Reese, a member of Goizueta’s Advisory Board and chairman of New York City-based WJB Capital Group, acted as a facilitator in 2009. A longtime sailor himself, Reese views sailing as a natural metaphor for the changing economic and competitive climate of business. 

“Each student learns what it means to manage in ambiguity, with imperfect information,” Reese says. “They have to understand quickly the strengths and weaknesses of their team members and adjust their responses, as leaders and as followers, to changing circumstances. These are life lessons as well as keys to success in business.”

We weren’t being asked to calculate a financial ratio. We had to constantly engage with what was happening and figure out our next move. —Meredith Swartz, MBA ’09

Among this year’s participants was Liz Stanton, who was captain of her boat the day of the silent challenge, during which she and her teammates were only allowed to talk to each other for two minutes at the top of each hour. “Without speaking, I had to learn how to react and respond to the stress, while still guiding my team to its destination,” Stanton says. “I’m now much better prepared to handle high-stress situations in the business environment.”

Another lesson of the sailing expedition also surprised participant Kate Pientka—she learned how to be not only a more effective leader, but also a more effective follower. “For me, this wasn’t about developing my leadership ability, but about learning how supportive and valuable I could be as a follower,” she says. “There are many brilliant people in MBA programs, and it’s sometimes difficult for them to step out of their natural tendency to take the lead. But they have to know how to follow if they’re going to work well on teams.”

These kinds of skills have been invaluable to Meredith Swartz, a 2009 GALA participant who now works in Atlanta as a healthcare consultant. “On the boat, we had to wing things a lot—and MBAs do not like to wing things! We weren’t being asked to calculate a financial ratio. We had to constantly engage with what was happening and figure out our next move,” Swartz says. That training has helped Swartz work in an industry facing an uncertain future due to current healthcare reform legislation.

Swartz is well aware that MBAs are often criticized for “not being able to function in ambiguity.” She believes that a program like GALA can go far toward answering that criticism. “It teaches students to think and sends them out to get the information they need, rather than just handing it to them.” That’s exactly the intent of GALA’s capstone experience, says Kourish. “It’s the emotional intensity of the experience that pushes people to understand themselves and how they work within a group of people. That understanding is what leadership is all about.”