PSU Vanguard Shield Icon

To learn leadership, Wharton students travel

Michael Useem has some unusual ways of getting Wharton M.B.A. students to unleash their inner General Pattons.

He has put them through Marine officer candidate training at Quantico, led them on treks up Mount Everest, and sent them to Gettysburg to analyze the Confederate and Union strategies. Useem says he believes that as students learn history and take turns leading hikes, they gain insight into an ability corporate America is increasingly demanding: leadership.

“These experiences drive points home in ways they will never be forgotten,” said Useem, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

It’s a sort of Outward Bound on steroids.

Masters in business administration degree programs tend to project a buttoned-down image of spreadsheets and case studies. Wharton and other schools have begun to take those future executives out of the classroom and put them into the field or jungle or wilderness. About 400 of Wharton’s 1,500 M.B.A. students choose to participate each year in one of the optional trips.

Useem, who began leading the trips in 1995, has taken some ribbing from his Penn colleagues, but he said students loved the trips and learned things about themselves that they otherwise would not.

“Some of my colleagues will say, ‘Well, that sounds pretty cool, but is this fun or is this learning?’ ” Useem said. “And one of my points is that powerful learning should be enjoyable.”

Wharton’s programs are hardly standard, but other business schools say they often look to teach leadership via real-life situations. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management has students consulting with women trying to start businesses in South Africa.

Michigan State University simulates military no-fly zones to teach students about group decision-making. Students at Rutgers University’s Camden campus have traveled to South Africa to develop business relationships necessary to create an African store in Camden.

The most recent excursion for Wharton’s required M.B.A. leadership course was to the battle lab at Fort Dix in South Jersey, where about 100 students participated in a computer simulation that required them to find food, water and shelter for victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

The students were divided into 14 teams representing such groups as the Red Cross, NATO and the U.S. Army, all assigned to figure out how to set up a new camp for refugees. They had a daylong cease-fire to get the job done.

About 9 that morning, M.B.A. student Neel Kashkari was confident that the students could pull it off.

“We were all taught to play nice,” he said. “So who’s going to fight in the sandbox?”

After only 30 minutes, the sandbox had gotten messy. Enemies, who were U.S. Army personnel operating computers hidden in an area called the “God room,” had fired on the U.S. infantry’s Humvee. The vehicle was useless. Three people were dead.

Things like that happen in Army simulations all the time. The Wharton game was not supposed to include casualties. The students complained.

Bruce Newsome, an international-relations graduate student from Britain who designed the peacekeeping mission simulation for Wharton and hopes to sell businesses on the concept, was not sympathetic.

“What’s your plan?” he asked, goading the students. They stopped griping and returned to their mission.

Meanwhile, back at NATO headquarters in another room, M.B.A. student Greg Colandrea had figured out that teamwork – a time-honored Wharton concept – was slowing down the effort.

By about 10:30 a.m., he had spent so much time listening that the peacekeeping operation was behind schedule. Colandrea, a former Navy lieutenant, began to take charge, telling people what to do, rather than continuing to debate strategy.

Although many students said they were learning from the exercise, undergraduate Andrea Scribner was bored.

“I feel like I’m playing Sim City and talking on walkie-talkies,” she said, referring to a popular computer game.

In another room, Lai Sze Tso, another of the undergraduates in the program, was pretending to be a linguist, negotiating with a Bosnian Highlander soldier (one of the bad guys) for the right to pass a roadblock. Role-playing was used to help students practice their communication styles.

The soldier would let the group pass, but only if it agreed to certain terms, such as not investigating war crimes. Otherwise, he vowed to attack the reconnaissance team with hundreds of soldiers on the ground and in the air.

He was gruff. Tso was calm, patiently asking questions so that she got the necessary information for her group.

The NATO team thought the Highlanders were bluffing about the soldiers and air power and ordered Tso and her group to proceed.

“I think we’re going to lose a Humvee,” she said, nervously clicking her pen.

NATO called the bluff correctly, and the team got points from Newsome for reading its briefing material carefully.

The M.B.A. students were about halfway through the day when Newsome, wearing camouflage from his British military days, told them they had made a fatal error. The spot chosen for the camp was too far away to transport everything in time.

As the simulation neared the end, the M.B.A. students, who pride themselves on thriving under pressure, were showing signs of stress and irritation. About 3 p.m., word arrived at the Red Cross that 150 more refugees had been discovered, all needing food, water and shelter.

At the 4 p.m. debriefing, Colandrea told the students what they already knew. They had failed.

But Maj. Brian Scully praised Colandrea for figuring out that he needed to abandon democracy to dictate. “You realized that if you didn’t get control of it, it would drive you crazy,” he said.

This goes against what they had learned at Wharton, but Scully told them teams work only if someone takes charge.

Colandrea said the simulation taught him to trust his instincts: “The lesson I learned was, ‘Don’t be afraid to adapt your leadership style to the situation you’re in.’ ”

Newsome had a final revelation for the students on why they had failed: He had planned it that way. “The simulation was designed to force them to fail and to learn from those failures, and I think that was the most profound lesson,” he said.