Teambuilding and Leadership: Why a College Curriculum Includes a Camp Experience

Kerry Plemmons

Why would the University of Denver require that every graduate business student go to camp? What possible good would derive from forcing predominantly urban dwelling professionals to go off in the mountains to work in teams in outdoor activities?

As a camp community, you already know that “Camp Gives Kids a World of Good.” The truth is camp gives everyone a world of good — including graduate business students. You shape the lives of children by instilling them with character, leadership skills, and cooperation. For those who never went to camp as children, the Daniels College of Business shows that it’s never too late to hone these skills in an enriching camp experience!

Picture a 300-pound former Denver Bronco offensive lineman being belayed by a team of Chinese women as he climbs up the “Corporate Ladder.” Now picture what happens as he falls and the belay team lowers him gently and quite safely to the ground. How does that process enhance business skills? Our answer is exponentially!

Outdoor experiential-based teaching is, in part, why the Daniels College of Business is known as a leader in values-based curriculum development. Our partnership with The Nature Place led us on a path to continuous innovation for the past twenty years. It all happened when a group of visionaries came together with a belief that business schools were suffering by not teaching valuesbased leadership.

The History of the Daniels College of Business

The story starts when the father of the cable industry, Bill Daniels, came to the University of Denver with an idea to change the curriculum of the typical business school to include ethics as a part of the traditional acumen-based programs. This was in the late 1980s when businesses in the United States were being accused of greed, corruption, and toxic practices to the environment. It was also when most business schools were applying the teachings of Nobel Prize Laureate Milton Friedman’s concept that the only purpose of a business is to maximize shareholder value. Think about Jeffrey Skilling, Harvard MBA, when he was quoted as saying that his job at Enron was to “stretch” federal regulations as far as possible in order to maximize shareholder value.

So Bill Daniels met with Dean Bruce Hutton, (now dean emeritus) to work on a business school curriculum that would include a balance of values-based leadership with the typical business acumens like accounting, finance, and marketing. As strange as it may seem today, business schools did not use Aristotle, Hobbes, and the great philosophers to teach leadership. Today at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver, every graduate student is exposed to at least two quarters of classic thought leaders, from the ancient philosophers to Jim Collins and Malcolm Gladwell.

Coincidentally, another pair of visionaries came knocking on Dean Hutton’s door in 1990 — Sandy Sanborn and Rob Jolly (The Nature Place founder and general manager, respectively). These two were promoting the idea that University of Denver / Daniels should get graduate students out of the classroom and bring them up to The Nature Place for experiential learning. Sandy probably had not read the academic literature but knew instinctively that transformational leadership learning cannot take place in a traditional classroom. Sandy Sanborn, a 10th Mountain Veteran of World War II, had started Sanborn Camps, along with his wife, Laura, after seeing some of the worst environmental and human tragedies in the world while fighting through the mountains of Southern Europe in 1944 and 1945. As a member of the first US Army division founded on skiing and mountaineering skills, Sandy witnessed how people from completely disparate backgrounds came together to create innovative and flat organizations. Sandy had a vision that business students were missing the exact opportunities he had enjoyed when he trained at Camp Hale, near Vail, Colorado.

Dean Hutton, cable pioneer Bill Daniels, and Army veteran Sandy Sanborn were all dismayed that business leaders were being convicted of fraud, deceit, and a variety of injustices to their communities and their shareholders — business leaders who used any means to maximize shareholder value while ignoring the rest of the stakeholders in the community. Think about all the CEOs who were glorified on the covers of Fortune Magazine while doing endless damage to the credibility of business enterprises by raping the environment, cheating their stockholders, and destroying communities around the world.

With all that as the background, Dean Bruce Hutton then lead a twenty-year project that elevated Daniels College to a top five ranking for teaching business ethics and value-based leadership. Now called The Compass, this learning process begins when 500 graduate students take a course called “The Essence of Enterprise” that includes “The Leading at the Edge Weekend” at The Nature Place. We first prepare students in the classroom by requiring them to read a large variety of material, (about fifty distinct readings per quarter) about ethical leadership from people like: Howard Gardner, “The Ethical Mind”; William Ruckleshaus, “Toward a Sustainable World”; Carl Larson, When Teams Work Best; Michael Porter, “Creating Shared Value”; Peter Drucker, “The Purpose of a Business”; and Garret Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

We then introduce the Daniels Leadership Model, which says people need a combination of skills to be successful in twenty-first century organizations.

The Daniels Compass Model

The Daniels Compass Model starts with the bricks and mortar foundation of values and ethics. Who would follow a leader they did not trust? Preeminent researchers and authors of the bestselling The Leadership Challenge Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, among others, have discovered that the number one thing that followers want in a leader is integrity and trust. We also know that talking about ethics in a classroom may be fun, but rarely leads to any kind of transformational change in an individual. What actually motivates a person to begin the journey of personal change usually starts with making a mistake — for example, a student who is in charge of leading a team from one orienteering point to another and fails because he does not listen to teammates, leverage group knowledge, or take the time to learn the process. Consider a time in your life when a mistake led to a new emotional awareness. In fact, most of our memories and most of our growth comes when something is triggered by a positive or negative response. Our goal at The Nature Place is to create a very safe environment for students to “fail forward faster”: to make mistakes in a positive learning environment.

The culmination of the three-day weekend is on Sunday afternoon when the students sit in small groups of five to ten people and provide feedback to each other in a “Two Plus Two” loop. (Every student tells each of the other team members two things they did very well and two things they could have done better. The requirement is that these feedback loops provide very specific details on how each member performed during the weekend.) The process works because these teams build strong levels of trust based on the intensity of the activities and the safe environment.

The experiential learning process starts during orientation when we talk about the connection between emotional intelligence and team dynamics. The next step is for these students to create a social contract on how they will work together and behave as a team during their years in graduate school and beyond.

Then, through a variety of tools, students are pushed to begin a journey of self and social awareness. We believe that building self-confidence begins when students understand the impact their leadership style has on those around them. Following the Oxford University model, teams of five are formed to engage in discussions that drive students deep into critical thinking, systems thinking, ethical thinking, creative thinking, and emotional awareness. Picture a group of five students sitting with one professor having an intellectual “food fight” over the impact of business practices on global warming or stakeholder engagement.

The actual weekend starts at 7:00 a.m. on a Friday morning, when busses leave the Daniels College in urban Denver for The Nature Place on the backside of Pike’s Peak, 8,700 feet in elevation and a world apart from the business school. As the students step off the bus two hours later, they have been metaphorically transported to an entirely different comfort zone. (For many, this is a zone of apprehension and anxiety.) Think of the many international and coastal US students who may have never seen snow, or been at that high of an elevation in the mountains. Most weekends, the busses deposit a little over 100 students at The Nature Place, where they are greeted by some of the greatest facilitators in the world. Rob Jolly and his team have spent several months in preparation and are exposed to the same reading list and leadership models that the students see in the classrooms at Daniels.

On Friday, half of the students will spend their day on an orienteering course where they run into numerous problemsolving activities that will test their team dynamics, emotional intelligence, and creative thinking ability. The other half of the students will head to the most beautiful high-ropes course in the world. Again, the teams will build self-confidence and reciprocal trust through powerful experiential activities. The culmination of the orienteering day is a “capture the flag” competition where teams have to find three points in a short period of time. The high ropes day ends at “Sandy’s Wall,” where teams compete to get all members over an initiative wall with a limited number of assists, while another team works their way over a wall twenty feet away. The cheering and pressure of watching another team adds to the emotional intensity of the day. And we see the success of these competitive activities during the final feedback session on Sunday. The business environment is full of pressure, so the reality is that the weekend presents real pressure as well.

At the end of the day, students are given forty-five minutes to go sit under a tree and reflect on their leadership during that day. Students are given journals and are required to write specifically about each activity and the learning outcomes that occurred. They also are tasked with thinking about how they can help each of their teammates become better leaders through the feedback process that happens on Sunday. Friday and Saturday nights are also packed with activities that include building social capital and stepping into a metaphor based on the leadership and innovation of the 10th Mountain Division.

On Sunday, revelry is sounded at 6:00 a.m., and the students head to Goat Mountain for five full hours of problem solving, orienteering, rock climbing, and repelling. (They also get to see a spectacular Colorado sunrise over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.) The Sunday activities are all student led and independent of the facilitators that helped them on Friday and Saturday. The teams must navigate through mountainous terrain to find and execute six separate activities. By noon, the students are tired but emotionally invigorated.

How Long Is the Shadow of Your Leadership?

Metaphors are tools that help leaders understand and remember a concept. Getting into the outdoors and working through problems requires the use of metaphors to take back to organizations. We like to talk about the “Shadow of Leadership” as a way to help understand the influence one person has on another. Think about people who you do not want to disappoint and who helped you become the person you are now. If one thinks about the people who have affected them, it is often someone who they have either never met or have not seen for a long time. Leadership ideals seem to grow over time through exposure to both good and bad models. We think of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, etc., in terms of the way they led. We also remember parents, grandparents, teachers, and coaches for the way they modeled good leadership. We are influenced by the shadow of great leadership even though we may not actually be in the shadow of that person for many years — if ever. When you think of bad leadership, the influence of that person leaves as soon as the physical shadow is gone. (Bad leadership seems to require threats that need the ability for actual enforcement. Once the actual threat is gone, followers are free to choose for themselves.) Good leadership is able to influence people across boundaries of time and space through empowerment. Once a follower believes in the vision and practices of a leader, the shadow of that leader gradually lengthens. We continually ask: “How long is the shadow of your leadership?” and “How will you build capacity in others in a manner that lengthens the shadow of your leadership?”

Our students go to The Nature Place with apprehension and come home with exhilaration. They go back to the classrooms on the following Monday with a new and stronger understanding of themselves and the effect they have on the people in their lives. A short, three-day weekend where students build bigger and more diverse comfort zones is instrumental to the journey that awaits their graduation. We know that these weekends are fun, but when the students take real learning and real transformation home with them, the weekend is successful. The mission of The Nature Place is “Fun and Adventure with a Purpose.” The Daniels College of Business mission is: “Ethical Practice, Thought Leadership, and Global Impact.” Together, we educate students with a bit of fun, a lot of purpose, and an action-oriented view of the world.

Kerry Plemmons is a clinical professor in Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. Plemmons helped build the Compass Curriculum and teaches graduate level courses in strategic marketing, team building, leadership, innovation, customer relationship management, and global business.

Originally published in the 2012 January/February Camping Magazine. 

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