Extreme Leadership treks in Patagonia, Andes test MBA students’ skills

Climbing Cerro el Plomo in the Andes with (front to back) Mary Harty, MBA 18, Asst. Prof. Omri Even-Tov, and Jeremy Carlson, MBA 18

On day six of an Andes climbing trek last January, a group of 10 Haas students were descending from the peak of Cerro el Plomo, a 17,800 foot mountain near Santiago, Chile.  As they were taking their first steps back to base camp, a powerful lightning storm rolled in earlier than expected.

The group rushed down the mountain, fearing they could be hit by lightning at any moment.  “You could hear the (hiking) poles crackling,” said Harris Googe, MBA 18, who was the team leader that day. After a day of climbing that started well before dawn, Googe thought that the hard part was behind them, only to realize how dangerous it was to be on a ridge at this altitude.  “My hair was standing on end out from my hood and standing straight up,” she said.

While this descent was more extreme than most, it reflects what MBA students at Haas might experience in a new course taught by Professors Jennifer Chatman and Omri Even-Tov.

Bringing classroom learning to a new level

The two-credit class offers two treks to either the Andes or Patagonia.  Even-Tov, who decided to not only teach the class but also joined the six-day Andes trek, says the treks bring classroom learning to a new level. “In class, you learn and simulate different situations,” he said. “But the outdoor experience allows you to apply those lessons and learn more about leadership in an intense environment. The outdoor experience is particularly critical for testing leadership attributes like empathy, sensitivity, collaboration, communication, and awareness during a real-life challenge.”

The Patagonia group takes a break during the trek.
The Patagonia group takes a break during the trek.

The course launched last year after a group of Haas students, fresh from an Antarctica trek they did outside of the MBA program, asked Even-Tov to supervise an independent study course in which they could reflect on what they learned.  Instead, Even-Tov worked with the students to start a class about extreme leadership, modeled on their trip.

“This is a hands-on leadership experience that I wanted to get out of business school,” said Jeff Neblett, who went on the Patagonia trek, his first overnight hiking experience. “I was excited for the challenge.”

A few other top MBA programs offer students leadership treks, but Even-Tov and Chatman wanted to create a trek that began with classroom sessions, where students could learn and practice leadership styles and skills before taking the trek.

Chatman said that this conceptual grounding enables students to be more aware of their own challenges “before they had to manage the group in extreme conditions.”

“This allows students to plan for the challenges, and also to gain insights into their own ‘go to’ leadership styles and where those can be most effective, and, importantly, where they can grow as a leader,” she said.

The Andes group takes a climbing break.
The Andes group summits.

The members of both the Andes and Patagonia teams, all second-year MBA students, gathered in Chou Hall in February to reflect on the lessons they learned. Jeremy Carlson and Leslie McMurchie presented for the two Andes teams; Molly Brister, Megan Miller, and Matt Shelton presented for Patagonia.

It was clear from the discussion that the Andes team’s experience was more extreme, due to the weather conditions, altitude, and intensity of the summit and descent.  However, even within the two teams in the Andes trek, there were clear differences in their experiences.

On one of the two Andes teams, there were times that group members were not aligned in their goals and expectations.  “When things became hard for some members on the team, it was a time of greatest fracturing for our group,” Carlson said.

Such moments presented leadership challenges that allowed for enlightening inspection of what motivates different people and helps build a team, Even-Tov said.

The Patagonia team holding the Cal banner.
The Patagonia team shows some Cal spirit.


Collectivism vs. individualism

All of the students felt that the trek was a tremendous accomplishment for them as individuals and as group members. But it was clear that one Andes group valued individualism over collectivism on the mountain, a topic that Chatman explored in her recent leadership research of groups of Himalayan climbers.

Students agreed that dealing with challenges in the extreme outdoor treks was essential to understanding  their true leadership style—in a way that isn’t as attainable in the classroom.

Charles Limido, who went to Patagonia, said he discovered during the course that he’s more of an “action-oriented” leader.

“We talk a lot about different leadership styles at Haas, but going to Patagonia really allowed me to put those in practice and see which ones worked better for me,” he said.

The next Extreme Leadership course will be offered in Fall 2018.