After an exhausting day of navigating multiple wrong turns, Charlotte de Vaulx had two direct paths to her campsite. They were both blocked by sea lions.
“Our motto was leave no trace and have minimal impact,” says Vaulx, a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The “minimal impact” meant the sea lions were not to be trifled with. Eventually, Vaulx was able to navigate her team — consisting of five other Wharton undergrads and their three leaders and guides — to safety and set up camp for the night on the second day of a nine-day leadership trek to Antarctica, the first of its kind offered to undergraduate students at Wharton.
Describing the McNulty Leadership Program at Wharton, Kate FitzGerald, marketing and communications director of the program, says, “You get to completely plug out of society, get out of your comfort zone, and do something that you’ve never done before. Whether that’s leading a rope line up a mountain or leading the navigation for a group on a zip line over a crevasse in a mountain. You never get to do that in the business world.”
The newly renamed McNulty program has been a Wharton staple since 1992. But after a “hiatus” to review their undergraduate efforts, leadership of the center decided to start offering their adventure treks to undergraduate students as well as MBAs. “We wanted to offer the best of the best of what we do to a more diverse audience,” FitzGerald says, noting that undergrads at Wharton have been “clamoring” for the same trips the MBAs have taken.
WILDERNESS LEADERSHIP TRAINING MORE EFFECTIVE AT A YOUNGER AGE?
Business leadership training has been used at the executive level for decades, both at Wharton and beyond. Each year, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), based in Lander, Wyoming, takes about 15,000 executives, students, and armed forces members into the wild for intensive leadership training. NOLS is probably the most well-known and respected wilderness leadership training organization in the world and has influenced the leadership of some of the country’s most influential leaders from military leaders to entrepreneurs.
Leadership Ventures, the glamour opportunities offered by the McNulty program, include one-day workshops, one- to two-day “intensives,” and the expeditions, which range from seven to 10 days.
“On a hike, it’s a constant process of not being sure, taking a shot, and finding out one, 10, or 100 minutes later whether your decision was a good or bad one,” Marc Randolph, a Netflix co-founder said in a 2012 Harvard Business Review article about NOLS. “That’s what you face in the business world, especially as an entrepreneur.”
But while NOLS and other programs focus on early-, mid-, and late-career professionals, FitzGerald says undergraduates often times see transformative leadership effects quicker. “Because of their age, they’re often the ones that can see the transformative effects with more immediacy than the graduate students,” she says.
LEARNING WHAT WORKED … AND WHAT DIDN’T
For Vaulx, learning to have an adaptive leadership style was one of the biggest lessons.
“There are many ways to lead, but to be effective takes practice and for each style comes many subtleties of how to foster good teamwork,” Vaulx says. “It’s not often that people get to try on a new leadership style from what they are used to or comfortable with.”
On each trek, every team member gets to be the leader for the day. At day’s end, the group debriefs through an “after action review” (AAR). “It really gives that individual who has risen to leader of the day an opportunity to work on individual and leading aspects in a team,” FitzGerald points out.
Vaulx says she takes a “directive” approach to leadership, but wanted to experiment with being “softer” and “more democratic” as a leader. Through the leadership experiment, Vaulx says she left the team feeling directionless. “I learned from my teammates suggestions how I could have more clearly outlined my expectations from everyone as a group in the morning, or delegated distinct ‘roles’ to everyone so that I could take more of a backseat in our trek, while everyone on the team felt empowered individually and in their own way responsible for our collective success,” she concedes.
Both Vaulx and her teammates were able to take the feedback and grow, which is exactly what the program is designed to do, FitzGerald says. “It’s a really good chance to get students completely out of their comfort zone and immersed in nature, to learn about themselves and learn about what it is they can do in a difficult setting,” she explains.
STARTING AS STRANGERS, LEAVING AS FAMILY
Antarctica — even in the summer — is a difficult setting. Coldness was the first shock for Vaulx. The barren landscape was the second. Following “leave no trace” and navigating with a GPS also proofed difficult. Many days required hiking while harnessed to one another with rope dangling in-between. “Unable to hear each other over the wind, we could feel each other’s every movement through the tug and pull of the rope,” Vaulx wrote in Wharton Magazine. “These tugs guided us as we matched rhythm step by step, walking together as one to find our new campsite safely.”
It’s that sort of bonding that makes the experience so transforming, even years afterwards, FitzGerald notes. “Often times, students com back from these trips and they’ve made life-long friends,” FitzGerald says. “Because you are just kind of thrust in this incubator for several days and you have to get along with each other, whether you want to or not. You don’t have a choice.”
And that’s exactly what happened for Vaulx and her five trip companions.
“We started as a small group of six undergraduates, strangers to each other and to the world in which we were immersing ourselves,” Vaulx concluded in Wharton Magazine. “When we left, we were a close-knit family, in awe of how such a cold environment could be so dynamic and full of life, and humbled by the discoveries we had made about ourselves and one another. Huddled together back on campus weeks later, this time at a tapas restaurant in downtown Philly instead of over a miniature cook stove, we shared photos, memories, and laughs as we planned more modest adventures — baking bread and skiing in the Poconos.
“We marveled at how the building of genuine trust in each other has tied us together by something much stronger than glacier ropes. I know that for each of us, this was one of the best decisions of our lives.”