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, American Gladiators goes to
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
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
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.
Student Anna Smith sighed and rolled her eyes. She knew they could not
handle the extra people and were nowhere near accomplishing their goal.
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.
Newsome was disappointed that the students did not do the math
thoroughly. Their miscalculations caused them to locate the initial campsite
too far north to complete the work in time.
The M.B.A. students also spent too much time talking and not enough time
doing, Useem said.
"One of the things I learned when I took our students down to
Quantico was that our students tended to overanalyze and underact,"
Useem said later. Executives often do the same, realizing too late, for
example, that they should have acted more quickly to integrate an
acquisition, he said.
"I think we know, whether it's Rwanda, or Enron or Firestone, that
leadership is crucial," said Useem, referring to several recent
leadership failures as he summed up the day.
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.