Leadership Lessons From The Wild

Wharton students form a "Wharton" in Patagonia. Photo courtesy of Wharton School of Business

Wharton students form a “Wharton” in Patagonia. Photo courtesy of Wharton School of Business

Jeff Klein stood in Pumalin Park in Chile’s Patagonia region, one of the most isolated pieces of wilderness remaining on our planet. In front of the executive director of the Wharton Leadership Program stood 36 MBA students. He asked them to stand in a continuum based on how comfortable they felt in the wilderness. Left meant they could survive a Himalayan avalanche; right meant their outdoor knowledge consisted of roasting marshmallows around a gas fireplace.

The continuum was overly skewed to the right, Klein recalls. They are business students after all, not seasoned trekking mountaineers. But for a week, they had to be both. It is all part of the Wharton Leadership Ventures program.

From wilderness trips to military training simulation to meditation and mindfulness, leadership development in an MBA education continues to evolve, but Wharton has been at the forefront of alternative leadership education. At Wharton, students can choose from a variety of experiences from a coast-to-coast hike across New Zealand to a mountaineering expedition in Alaska to trekking in Antarctica and basically everything in between.

On this particular trip to Chile, the goal was to backpack into the largest temperate coniferous rainforest in the world and do some glacial ice climbing. The students, leaders, and guides would be in the wilderness for a little less than a week. Out of all of the trips Klein has taken, this one stands out in his mind because it had all of the challenges these trips are designed to pose: treacherous river crossings, long hikes, unpredictable and uncomfortable situations, rain, teamwork, fear–and more rain. Klein says those challenges stretch students, allowing them to experience personal growth that is physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.


Regardless of the destination, the objectives remain the same. The large group is broken down into teams of four to six, with each participant having the chance to lead a group for the day. Leaders are the primary decision makers and head up a variety of tasks that range from safely getting the group from one campsite to another to keeping spirits up during what can be uncomfortable and frustrating situations.

“The value is translating ideas into action,” says Klein. “It is one thing to talk about building a vision and then leading that vision. It is another thing to do it in the wilderness with unpredictable conditions and circumstances and then getting feedback on your leadership abilities at the end of the day.”

Klein views these challenges as a fundamental extension of the theories and concepts taught in the classroom. The kind of high-pressure situations Wharton creates not only puts comfort and ease-of-mind at stake, but sometimes safety from serious injury or worse. On the Pumalin Park excursion, the team had to cross a river swelling from glacier run-off and rain by a rope system. It took nearly half the day to get across the near-freezing water raging beneath students’ dangling feet.

Wharton students in Patagonia. Photo courtesy of Wharton School of Business

Wharton students in Patagonia. Photo courtesy of Wharton School of Business


Challenges often turn up unexpectedly and abruptly. When current Venture fellow Lauren Raouf was on her first trip in Patagonia, she was the day’s designated leader and her objective was to guide her teammates to the summit of one of the smaller peaks in the region. But snow began to fall and soon enough the team found itself in a blizzard as it was tiptoeing the side of a ridge. Raouf had to make the harrowing decision whether to continue the climb or bail and get her team back down to camp safely.

“I learned sometimes you have to completely throw your one objective out of the window,” says Raouf. “You have those moments as a business leader when you have to scrap the plan, but you never know when it is going to come. It forces quick decision making and the confidence that you made the right decision.”

Klein had a similar experience on one of his first ventures as a student. The trip was to summit Ecuador’s Cotopaxi. Klein’s team was taking a practice ascent up a smaller mountain and at the summit one of the guides jumped onto a dangerously placed cairn on top of a ledge. A fall would lead to almost certain death.

“He asked to have his picture taken and I was so nervous, my stomach dropped. I could just picture him falling off the side of the mountain,” says Klein. “Then one of my good friends and classmates did it right after him and my stomach dropped further. And I didn’t say anything.”

Klein beat himself up about not speaking up at something that was recklessly dangerous. It stayed with him through the rest of the day. When the team was debriefing at their camp in the evening, Klein found the courage to speak out to the guide.

“I told him I was frightened and annoyed,” Klein says. “We are depending on him and he put himself at risk and set a poor example for everyone else. It was a real powerful moment for me because I learned I have to speak up. I will be in teams now and see a behavior or action that is unsupportive of what the team is trying to do and now I always have the courage to say something.”

Klein fixed a leadership skill he didn’t even know he had been lacking. Raouf learned a similar lesson at the Quantico military simulation. That is, she can yell if she needs to. She didn’t know she needed to use her ability to aggressively raise her voice, but what type of rational adult does? The drill sergeants yelled for two reasons. To create a chaotic situation and teach that sometimes it is important to own a space in a room.

“When we were calling numbers back, I was not loud enough,” says Raouf. “They taught me how to yell properly. And now I have no fear of projecting.”

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.