Trekking to the Top

Adventure-based learning and leadership programs, including some that range as far afield as Antarctica, are catching on

By Jeffrey Gangemi

On Tom Arnold's first day in Antarctica, he found himself part of a team undertaking the daunting task of constructing a snow wall to shield the group's tents from the bone-chilling wind. Struggling to perform the job on their own, the builders wondered why the others weren't helping. Afterward, it dawned on the five or six builders that the rest of the group had no clue as to what their roles should be. Arnold decided his own lack of planning had alienated those who wanted to help but didn't know how. "It increased the stress of people who already felt out of their element," he says.

Along with 17 other students, Arnold, 28, now a second-year student at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia, spent seven days in Antarctica in 2003, during his first year of school. He believes his experiences as a participant in a pilot program for Wharton Leadership Ventures transformed his concept of leadership. He was no neophyte, either: Before going to Wharton, he worked for five years in management consulting and business development in California's Silicon Valley.


  Such experiential learning programs have grown in importance as elements in the leadership-course boom at many top business schools. In 1990, for instance, Wharton's single elective class in leadership saw limited enrollment. Now, the school requires that all 1,000 incoming MBA students take the course. As a supplement, about 500 Wharton MBAs participate in one of 12 Wharton Leadership Ventures programs each year, traveling as far as the Himalayas or as near as the battlefields of Gettysburg.

Skeptics might question the notion that a trip to Antarctica equals more than just a highfalutin' vacation. But, says Mike Useem, Wharton professor and co-founder of the program: "The important thing is that it isn't just experience. It really has education before [the experience] infused into it, and after, through debriefing." A miscue in the classroom won't stick with you like getting lost in Antarctica, he says. In the classroom, a student rarely feels a palpable effect of another's leadership decision.

Arnold calls Wharton Leadership Ventures "mirrors in which you see yourself," because they challenge participants to make tough decisions in stressful environments. He's using his new skills to convert a team-based classroom project into his post-MBA career, something he says he couldn't have done prior to his experiences in Antarctica. Along with 40 other students, Arnold has started a company called Terrapass, marketing a service that allows individuals to pay to offset their cars' emission of greenhouse gases.


  Each Leadership Venture follows a similar formula. Like Outward Bound, the leadership programs place participants in a challenging (and often physically uncomfortable) but safe environment for learning. The difference lies in the design of these leadership programs; they foster solid connections between the business world and the adventure. "When it doesn't work, it's because there's no connection made," says Morgan McCall, leadership professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.

Wharton students work together to negotiate treacherous Antarctic terrain. (Photo courtesy of Arthur Sulzberger Jr.)   

In expanding Wharton Leadership Ventures to Antarctica, Useem trusted accomplished mountaineer and leadership professor Rodrigo Jordan to bridge the gap between the frozen continent and Wharton. Leader of a recent 60-day Antarctic expedition through unexplored terrain, Jordan is founder and head of Vertical LLC and has taught leadership to more than 120,000 people over the past 12 years, while moonlighting as professor of leadership at La Universidad Catolica's MBA program in Santiago, Chile.

Trekking to the Top
The harsh conditions of Antarctica provide the venue for leadership and teamwork. (Photo courtesy of Arthur Sulzberger Jr.)

Before heading out, participants discuss the real-life leadership decisions made by others facing similar situations. On the way to Antarctica, for instance, Wharton students hear a series of talks on the leadership challenges faced by the region's early explorers -- with connections drawn back to the boardroom. These lessons quickly take on new significance as the groups of students head out on daily treks. Difficulties always arise, such as the need to cross rivers and glaciers, requiring leadership and teamwork.


  Extensive daily debriefing serves as the final, and perhaps most important, element of the leadership courses. In a safe environment, students examine the day's leadership decisions. "The exercise is a learning experience, but if you don't have the debriefing, then you're missing out on a lot. It's extremely powerful," says David Campbell of the Center for Creative Leadership, a nonprofit institute based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Trekking to the Top
An ice wall built by the students shields their tents from the biting wind. (Photo courtesy of Arthur Sulzberger Jr.)   

Campbell says students invariably gain more appreciation of their place in a whole organization after one of these programs. They also begin to focus on themselves as whole individuals, and interpersonal skills naturally improve. "I learned that interpersonal relations are important no matter what the environment," says Axel Lapica, a student who completed Wharton's pilot program.

Of course, students needn't necessarily travel to the ends of the earth to leave their comfort zones. The Marshall School of Business uses weekend retreats, and other MBA programs are looking into less rigorous alternatives to the Antarctica-style expeditions. Indeed, Jordan and Vertical are already working to develop outdoor adventures with MBA programs at MIT's Sloan School of Management and NYU's Leonard N. Stern School of Business. Other top schools are considering starting programs, too.

Trekking to the Top
Antarctica is one of the last untouched places on the planet. (Photo courtesy of Arthur Sulzberger Jr.)   


  The participants themselves often make for the programs' strongest proponents. "I can safely say that learning how to deal with people will get me further than any case I've learned about in class," says Arnold.

When his professor offered to make him COO of Terrapass, Arnold immediately remembered his ice wall experience in Antarctica. Together, the students in the company decided on a flat leadership structure, with focus groups to handle finance, accounting, and other departments. Arnold now believes that most people perform best in a system of their own creation, forged from personal leadership experiences. That way, no one gets left out in the cold.

Gangemi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Thane Peterson