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Leadership in the Wilderness: The First Darden/NOLS Course

By Alex Fife

UVA-Darden-web-logoAs the last light faded and I clicked on my headlamp, two things had become clear: 1) it is very dark in the wilderness, and 2) this was not going to be a simple walk in the woods. Though night had fallen, we still had to cover a considerable distance before reaching and setting up camp. I thought back on the day: we had hiked at least six miles, first across an expanse of cactus and thorns and then through a rocky canyon with gnarled Arizona sycamore trees. When not hiking, our time had been filled with instruction on fundamental outdoor skills such as how to cook with a camp stove, read a topographic map, and the multistep process for going to the bathroom in the woods. It was the beginning of a class unlike any other offered at Darden.

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Photo by Kenny Schulman

This January marked the first Darden collaboration with the National Outdoor Leadership School, NOLS for short. In addition to running custom programs for companies like Google and Salesforce.com, NOLS Professional Training has offered courses for a number of MBA programs. Jake Freed, Assistant Director of NOLS Pro and one our instructors, believes that “the wilderness actually draws many parallels with the landscape business school graduates will face. It is an ambiguous, dynamic setting where decisions with real consequences must be made, often with incomplete information.” Dr. Freed notes that the course structure encourages participants to “practice leadership skills in a challenging, unfamiliar environment where it is OK to fail and where both success and failure ultimately lead to profound learning.”

When asked about Darden’s decision to collaborate with NOLS, Professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne responded that “The Darden/NOLS field elective was about experiencing leadership. The idea was to empower our students by allowing each and every participant to discover their capabilities as leaders, while operating in a unique and challenging setting. When the decisions you make as a leader can result in your team hiking in the dark, getting lost, or not having enough water, outcomes are direct and consequences clear. Leaders and team members alike are called to think and care for each other in new ways and to rely on trust, extraordinary teamwork, non-selfish behavior and mutual respect.”Our course took place in the Galiuro Mountains in Arizona. Never heard of the Galiuro Mountains? Neither had we, but being in the desert in January sounded reasonably warm and the course description spoke of an area “renowned for its rugged terrain, spectacular Sonoran ecology and beautiful vistas.” It is also a treacherous place where, in the words of second year student Amanda Miller, “EVERYTHING will bite, prick, or sting you.” So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that 13 second year students, Yael, one alum, and three NOLS instructors ventured into the wilderness.

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Photo by Kenny Schulman


The objective for the week was clear: to hike south through the mountain range, a distance of roughly 40 miles through canyons and high mountain passes. While our NOLS instructors would serve as advisors, Darden students were responsible for almost every aspect of the expedition. Every day, three students would act as expedition leaders, each responsible for leading a small team from dawn until dusk. These leaders would plot the course for the day, draw up contingency plans, and make dozens of critical decisions along the way. NOLS instructors would give their advice when asked, but would not intervene if a leader made a mistake.

“We had to make real managerial decisions in the middle of nowhere,” said Amanda Miller, “We had to manage our peers in uncharted territory.  We had to use a compass and a topographical map to figure out how to get down mountain faces by the light of a headlamp with no trail in sight.  We all learned about our leadership styles and how they can evolve when you move between carefully planned scenarios and chaotic uncertainty.”

“We were able to exercise both our leadership and active follower skills while receiving concrete feedback from our Darden peers and NOLS instructors,” noted Kat Baronowski, a second year student and DSA President, “It was a great opportunity to put into practice a number of the lessons we’ve learned in the Darden classroom.”

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Photo by Mark Silvers

Mark Silvers, a second year student and Marine Corps veteran, agreed that the experience was a dramatic departure from learning leadership in a classroom. “It is completely different to lead a team in an environment where a leader’s mistakes can cost daylight, calories, warmth, and morale.” he said, “Darden students aren’t Marines, and the trip provided an extraordinary opportunity for me to adapt my leadership style to a diverse group with a wide range of backgrounds, risk tolerances, and priorities.”

Our NOLS instructors also pushed us to improve our “expedition behavior,” a mantra that embodies good teamwork, active followership, and mindfulness. If you see something that needs to be done in camp, do it. If you have a suggestion for a better route on the map, speak up. If you see a teammate struggling, offer to carry some extra weight to lighten their load. Share the precious last Fig Newton you had been saving when you notice someone needs an energy boost. The Darden team fully embraced this mentality and their small acts of unselfishness had a huge impact on the success of an expedition. I will be forever grateful for the untold number of sacrifices, words of encouragement and respect that my teammates gave me.

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Photo by Kenny Schulman


Never was that spirit more critical than on our final day, when we rose before sunrise and hiked five miles to reach our rendezvous point. Bone tired and freezing cold, it took every ounce of energy and will to keep going. Yet despite our miserable state, all I could hear in the darkness (on our supposedly “silent hike”) was laughter and encouraging comments. One student sang a song about breakfast burritos and we chuckled to discover another, in the dim light, proudly sporting his favorite purple long johns sans pants.

As the rising sun filled the canyon with a red glow, I was struck with a pang of sadness that our journey had come to an end. I was going to miss the camaraderie, the cheesy bagels fried over a carefully balanced camp stove, and our intense sense of common purpose. Yet as I hiked the last miles of the trip, I took heart in the fact that the hard-earned lessons of the past week extended far beyond the trail.

Truly, this course was unlike any at Darden.

 

This post originally appeared in the February edition of the Darden School of Business' news journal, The Cold Call Chronicle.

| Posted by Casey Pikla on Feb 24, 2014

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