Johnson Leadership Expedition to Patagonia
Jagged mountain peaks, snow, and driving wind might not describe the typical Sage Hall classroom, but for 10 days in January an 11-member Johnson delegation traded the comforts of campus for the mountains of Patagonia to take part in the school’s first-ever Johnson Leadership Expedition.
“On the second day we hiked over a mountain pass in very challenging conditions,” says Johnson Leadership Programs Director Jerry Rizzo. “The weather was cold and wet when we started out and it eventually turned to freezing rain and snow with wind gusts strong enough to knock people over. These were what I would call ‘varsity conditions.’”
Leadership Expeditions are designed to give students a chance to leave Ithaca and dig in, full-time, to their leadership development. The trips give students the opportunity to experience the Johnson leadership learning cycle of instruction, experience, and review multiple times in an intensive, condensed timeframe.
Johnson partnered with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) for the January 4-14, 2013 trip. NOLS is a renowned leadership training institute that has worked with the military, NASA astronauts, Google executives, and other groups around the world. The Johnson expedition was part of a course taught by Rizzo and Associate Professor of Management and Organizations Jim Detert.
“My most personally rewarding moment came after we had safely crossed the pass and moved down into a meadow where we could spend the night,” Rizzo explains, referring to an early stage of the trip. “I had been worried about how students would feel about being subjected to such demanding conditions. Would they be angry? But no one was; in fact, everyone was elated that our team had done something so difficult. I realized I had severely underestimated the toughness and resiliency of this group. I also came away with a sense of appreciation for this type of experiential learning. There is no way I could ever create a similar learning opportunity within the halls of Sage.”
One of the hallmarks of a NOLS trip is that there are designated Leaders of the Day who are charged with leading the team and ensuring the group’s safety. The Johnson group split into two teams each day, and leaders received feedback on their efforts. Clint Cherco, MBA ’13, led one of the teams the day the group had to make it over the snowy mountain pass.
“If any of us had known what we were going to get into that day, we would have all said, ‘There’s no way we can do that,’” Cherco recalls. “But having a common goal of getting through it together allowed us to persevere. I think we surprised ourselves.”
Detert says those kind of experiences are exactly what he was hoping for when he designed the course. “When your ability to eat, sleep, stay dry, warm, and safe depends undeniably on the others you are traveling with, you quickly form a bond that is unlike almost any other. That creates an awesome environment for learning and growth.”
Detert explains that the goal of the pre- and post-expedition classroom sessions was to make them directly applicable to what the students learned on the trip. “The point of the sessions before the students left was to have them identify a few things about their own leadership styles, personalities, and goals — using existing frameworks — that would hopefully be directly applicable to what they experienced on the trip. Likewise, the goal of the individual coaching sessions and group debrief after the expedition was to help students reflect on what they had learned about their leadership, followership, and teamwork strengths and weaknesses.”
Part of the impetus behind the expedition was Jamie Hunt, MBA ’13, who worked as a NOLS instructor before coming to Johnson. Hunt was motivated to work with Detert and Rizzo to bring the course to fruition as a way to give back to Johnson. “A NOLS expedition provides a unique opportunity to fail, to give and receive face-to-face feedback, and to reflect,” he says. “If you use directive decision-making and disregard your colleagues’ perspectives, you may lead your peers astray. If they end up wandering for several hours in the wrong direction carrying fifty-pound backpacks, you will all learn from the experience.”
Stephen Markgraf, MBA ’13 (CQ), says he has already applied the experience to his professional life. “Because I was successful in dealing with several unexpected challenges, I feel like I’m more prepared for future unknowns. I have confidence now that I can achieve more than I might initially think.”
Nora Hansanugrum, MBA ’13, agrees the expedition was invaluable. “The trip provided me with a unique opportunity to refine my leadership skills in a way that I’m not able to do during the school year. The removal of distractions and simplification of being immersed in the wilderness made it easier to identify aspects of my leadership that need further development, as well as to find the salient strengths I already possess.”
Rizzo is already busy planning future expeditions, including a trip for first-year students to Quantico, Va., later this semester to participate in leadership training with the United States Marine Corps at their Officer Candidate School. NOLS expeditions to Patagonia and the Utah Canyonlands are being planned for January and March 2014, respectively.
Photos by Alex Chang, MBA ’12 (CQ), Nora Hansanugrum, MBA ’13, and Stephen Markgraf, MBA ’13 (CQ)