What can you learn about leadership hiking up mountains and traversing glaciers in Alaska? According to Ahmad Thomas, WG’18, a lot.
That’s the principle behind Wharton Leadership Venture Expeditions, outdoor, experiential treks that provide environments of uncertainty and challenge where leadership learning happens. Run by the Wharton McNulty Leadership Program, ventures are signature co-curricular Wharton experiences.
A week-long Expedition began in Anchorage, Alaska, with Wharton EMBA students from both coasts and in both years of the program. As for the program structure, Ahmad explained that each day, different students served as the expedition leaders, setting objectives like hiking up a mountain, crossing a glacier, or ice climbing. At the end of the day, students reflected on how things went with Wharton instructor Jules Roy, a veteran of the U.S. Special Forces.
Ahmad led the group on the first day of the Venture. His objective was to get to the top of a mountain and set up camp so that the group could get to the glacier on the second day. Leadership lessons began almost immediately. He explained, “People were falling down. They were cold and tired. We faced physical stamina and motivation challenges. The wheels started coming off the wagon right away.”
Ahmad and his co-leader decided that their best chance to achieve the goal was to split up the group so that the faster students could hike ahead and set up camp. Dividing up the gear and food, Ahmad led the slower group as they made their way up the mountain. Finally, around midnight, his group was greeted with cheers as they arrived at camp.
Ahmad said he learned quite a bit about leadership not only from his day as a leader, but also being part of teams led by his classmates.
First, Ahmad observed that he has a very goal-oriented leadership style. When things started to fall apart, some leaders may have changed direction, but Ahmad stuck to the goal. “In my mind, there was no alternative to getting to that spot that night.”
He also learned about the importance of backup plans, especially when operating with incomplete information. “Our execution would have been better with contingency planning for what we would do if we needed to split up. In the heat of the moment, many small details were missed like some of the food and gear needed to setup camp was with my slower group. As a leader you need to get the big and little things right, which means thinking ahead about contingencies or delegating those responsibilities appropriately.”
Ahmad recognized that reflection is just as important as contingency planning. “Making time to review what happened during each day — what worked and what didn’t work and why — was extremely valuable. I saw how I could apply that process to my everyday leadership challenges.”
“When pushed to the limit, you need people you can rely on. In conditions like the ones we faced in Alaska, the benefits of a good team are strikingly apparent and the downsides of a bad team can’t be hidden,” said Ahmad. “We had some teams that functioned well and others that didn’t. The Leadership Ventures are a safe setting to learn what doesn’t work well and how you can adapt.”
No Perfect Leadership Style
He also saw how there is no perfect leadership style. “We all had very different leadership styles. Some classmates were more empathetic and consensus oriented, while others ran us into the ground. Different styles resonated with different members of the group.”
Get out of Your Comfort Zone
There is tremendous value in getting out of your comfort zone, noted Ahmad. “As a leader, you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This Venture was about challenging yourself and applying what you learned in class in a completely unfamiliar setting. You stretch yourself by applying knowledge when you are challenged. That is when all the class material taught by our great Wharton professors really begins to stick.”
— Meghan Laska
Posted: December 18, 2017