The challenge had the elements of a classic army boot camp drill, requiring physical strength and mental fortitude. In the middle of a deep pit of red-painted woodchips stood two 6ft-high walls connected by narrow wooden beams. The goal: using only a 20ft rope, move a five-person team up and over both walls without touching the woodchips in 15 minutes or less.
If not quite resembling the film Full Metal Jacket, the exercise was all the group of 55 NYU Stern MBA students could ask for. They had come to the United States Military Academy at West Point for a lesson on leadership. Through a series of student-led “missions”, their focus, decision-making and management skills were challenged in the same way the academy tests it cadets during officer training.
The excursion to West Point – on a sprawling pastoral campus by the Hudson River – was part of Stern’s leadership development initiative, a supplemental MBA programme involving workshops, guest speakers and field trips.
Caitlin Weaver, the director of the initiative, says the missions give students an opportunity to practise leadership skills such as “setting a vision, communicating a vision and managing conflict” within a group.
“We chose an activity that leverages the deep traditions and leadership practices within the military.”
Steve Reinemund, the former chief executive of PepsiCo who steps down as dean of business at Wake Forest at the end of June, understands this better than most. Mr Reinemund is a graduate of the US Naval Academy and a former captain in the Marines. “The military teaches the importance of vision, the importance of integrity and discipline and the importance of teamwork,” he says.
For MBA students to experience this variation on military training “means they will remember it in a much more vivid way”, says Mr Reinemund, who remains at Wake Forest in an advisory capacity.
In groups of five or six, the Stern students took turns leading “missions” on an obstacle course comprising soaring wooden structures connected by slender boards and ropes. To raise the students’ cortisol levels, each mission had certain constraints such as working out how to carry heavy “ammunition boxes” as they moved from one side to another.
The course simulated the kinds of “dynamic tasks” students will face in the business world where goals are constantly shifting, says Ms Weaver. “There was one challenge [scaling a steep wall], and it’s only when students reach the top that they discover another wall on the other side that everyone needs to descend in order to complete the mission.
“The situation changed and new information was introduced. It wasn’t a given that they were going to succeed. The idea was: ‘you’re going to be uncomfortable and that’s when the growth happens’,” she adds.
After each mission, a faculty member from West Point led a debriefing session where teams discussed where their strategy worked and where it fell short.
MBA student Diana Ruano led a partially successful mission that involved building a makeshift bridge to move her five-member team from one side of an elevated tunnel to another. Although everyone reached the other side Ms Ruano realised they had forgotten the ammunition box, which was a key component of the challenge.
“It was a moment of reflection,” she says. “We thought: ‘how can we put in place a structure and sequence to make sure [a mistake like that] doesn’t happen again?’ As we moved forward, we assigned people different roles and responsibilities to ensure all details were being covered.”
Ms Ruano says the experience taught her the value of teamwork. “There is a pressure to perform and there is a preconceived notion that as a leader you always have to have the answer,” she says. “But there are many different perspectives and the team has to work together.”