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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

At Wharton, Leadership training involves getting High

High Altitude that is. Mountain Climbing. Glaciers and snow. About 5 years ago, Wharton began to incorporate field trips or ventures into its curriculum that would emphasize leadership. These field trips were often mountain climbing on snow or glaciers which lead to some joking among the student body that leadership involves ordinary team dynamics that are just placed on a mountain. A learning team argument about how to divide up the work load for a team building paper at sea level is just typical group interaction. However, when placed at least 15,000 feet on a glacier, than it's a leadership opportunity!

This characterization is more of typical MBA self-deprecating humor as Professor Mike Useem, who is an excellent professor, and a friend of mine lead the program and I think they do a good job. The leadership ventures are very popular and provide unique field experience not found at many graduate schools.

However, given my previous post about leadership training at MBA programs, I am obviously skeptical of the whole concept of leadership training in a business school and this is no exception. A recent Wharton Journal article entitled "Leadership in the Death Zone: K2" was one reason that I thought about Wharton's mountain climbing leadership ventures. The article is very objective, provides good background, and concludes with metaphors of the same tools that we use in climbing real mountains are used for goals that seem like mountains. I have no complaints about the article as it is well-written.

The main reason that I decided to post about leadership training through mountain climbing is that I started climbing shortly after moving out to Oregon 6 years ago. I climbed about 4-6 peaks per season, take climbing classes, and have been an assistant leader on a few climbs. In short, I am that guy in your class who worked at the company that was the topic of the case study. Just like that guy in your class, I now consider myself to be the true expert on the topic and that even professors or professional mountain climbers are going to hang on my every word. In case this isn't clear, this is another example of that self-deprecating MBA humor.

There are some elements of climbing in a team that make it very conducive to leadership development. Decisions on setting anchors, rope teams, or routes need to be made quickly with the available information and the team has to move as one. Everyone has to be aware of the conditions of each team member as the entire team makes it to the summit or the entire team does not.

However, there are some elements of mountain climbing that are not really conducive to leadership training. A climber can have communication skills that suggest autism and think that team building is an type of construction project. However, if they have excellent climb skills, they will be a good leader. A solid anchor will comfort a nervous climber as much as a kind word. Navigation skills are more important than being a skilled communicator. Whenever I lead a group, I focused on the route as getting lost was the surest way to lose faith in my leadership ability. Or I delegate navigation to the entire group and told them that it was just as much their fault if we got lost.

Overall, my biggest objection to mountain climbing as a leadership development tool is that it strips climbing of its passion. For me, mountain climbing is about being in the wilderness, being with fellow climbers, making it to the summit, and celebrating when we get down safely. My thoughts are not about leadership opportunities but more enjoying the moment of seeing the sun come up when you're break the treeline. Or thinking about the utter misery when it's dark, cold, and you question why you selected this hobby. A successful summit feels like winning a championship and make you forgot those midnight alpine starts. I do try to improve my climbing skills and learn in that regards but this feels more like a personal quest than a team exercise.

There are many lessons that a team could learn and deconstruct after a climb. However, I would rather just enjoy getting high. High on the altitude that is.

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