Stress testing the character of future business leaders

Early one morning late last summer, a bus load of ambitious Ivey Business School students departed from Western University’s campus in London, Ontario, and headed north for a unique course on leadership. The individuals in question were not exactly sure what to expect when they arrived at their destination—Canadian Forces Base Borden.

From the course outline, the students knew Leadership Under Fire: Developing Character was a new program designed to challenge them both mentally and physically in an environment outside their comfort zones. Many students, however, didn’t fully realize how much the course would empower them to explore their personal strengths and weaknesses and assess their suitability for leadership. Some students imagined they had signed up for a field trip with relatively simple team building exercises and a fun obstacle course. At least one didn’t even bother to bring along boots and a backpack, which were clearly listed as required items on the course equipment list. These harmless misconceptions were quickly dispelled along with the dangerous and false idea that good leadership comes easy to intelligent and confident people.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” one student not-so-playfully noted after being ordered off the bus by a professional Canadian soldier, who made it clear (in the colourful terms deployed by hardened boot camp instructors) that the days and nights ahead would be far more educational than pleasant for members of the group that soon became known as Ivey Platoon.

Good leaders learn from experience. If they are lucky, they eventually become aware of their limitations and take steps to address them. Unfortunately, history shows that too many leaders fail to become aware of their blind spots until it is too late. It doesn’t have to be this way. The need to stress test balance sheets of financial institutions is generally accepted as a prudent form of risk management. So why not test the character of managers of organizations where leadership character plays a major role in determining success or failure? Better yet, why not give business students a chance to assess themselves before they accept the significant responsibilities that come with managing organizations in today’s challenging environment?

This article discusses the need for more business school courses like Leadership Under Fire, which was developed in partnership with Canada’s military to allow Ivey students to gain a deep  understanding of their strengths and weaknesses before they graduate and serve future employers as risk managers, department heads, chief executives, directors and boardroom chairs.

THE NEED TO FOCUS ON LEADERSHIP CHARACTER

Forbes columnist Mike Myatt recently observed that the world suffers greatly at the hands of people who confuse their need for an ego boost or thirst for greed with leadership. “Whether through malice or naïveté,” he writes, “those who abuse or tolerate the abuse of leadership place us all at risk. Poor leadership cripples businesses, ruins economies, destroys families, loses wars, and can bring the demise of nations. The demand for true leaders has never been greater – when society misunderstands the importance of leadership, and when the world inappropriately labels non-leaders as leaders we are all worse for the wear.”

Improving the quality of leadership, of course, depends on the efforts of many of society’s stakeholders. As a business school, Ivey has long recognized its obligation to thoroughly examine, understand and commit to the development of good leadership. Following the financial crisis, Ivey faculty partnered with organizational leaders from outside academia to ask if better leadership would have made a difference. The answer—an unequivocal yes—formed the basis of Leadership on Trial: A Manifesto for Leadership Development, which noted good leadership rests on three pillars: commitment, competencies and character. As explained by the authors (Gandz, Crossan, Seijts and Stephenson), when any one of the three pillars is deficient, the shortfall will ultimately lead to problems. But while business schools have done an admirable job of researching and teaching the competencies that are deemed essential for individual and organizational success, the importance of leadership character and commitment as cornerstones in the development of the next generation of business leaders has been largely ignored.

To address this issue, Ivey compared the various strengths and weaknesses of leaders at companies that survived or prospered during the meltdown to those that didn’t. The school found “Good Leader Character” relies on having appropriate strength in 11 inter-related dimensions of leadership character: Accountability, Collaboration, Courage, Drive, Humanity, Humility, Integrity, Judgment, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence. If left unchecked, shortfalls or excesses in any of these areas can turn virtues into vices and ultimately lead to failure.

JOINING FORCES WITH CANADA’S MILITARY

As noted above, the global economic meltdown reinforced Ivey’s commitment to identifying and promoting the prerequisites for good leadership. Since 2010, the business school has conducted research and published empirical and practitioner papers on leadership character for use in educational programs. Case studies with an explicit focus on character and commitment have been written. Special events and conferences that emphasize the three pillars of good leadership have been held. Speakers have been invited to address the issue in both conventional and unconventional ways. But all that still left a void because to understand the demands of good leadership in a way that will truly resonate, students need to do more than simply read or hear about the importance of character and commitment. They need to directly experience how their own character works in a team environment and how it holds up under duress.

Unlike the management skills required to run businesses, teaching someone to understand their character strengths and weaknesses isn’t something that can be done in a typical classroom, at least not effectively. After all, one of the foundations of leadership is the ability to accomplish a task by influencing the behaviour of other people. To do that, a leader must be able to assess a situation, develop a plan, issue clear instructions and then supervise execution. And when trying to teach this in a traditional classroom setting, students never really get beyond assessing a situation and developing a plan. As a result, they never directly experience the challenges involved in issuing instructions and managing plan execution.

A solution to this dilemma was developed by two Canadian entrepreneurs with military backgrounds, Toronto-based corporate strategy consultant John Mercer, a former captain and personal assistant to the commander of the Canadian Army, and Larry Stevenson, managing director with Toronto’s Callisto Capital and former army platoon commander who revolutionized the Canadian book industry as founder of the Chapters retail chain.

Mercer (Ivey MBA, 1986) and Stevenson (Harvard MBA, 1984), who is currently Honourary Colonel of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, had long agreed that business schools were better at producing managers than developing leaders. Together, they approached Ivey with the idea of combining business education with elements of the Basic Officer Training Course (BOTC), which teaches the basics of leadership to every officer in the Canadian Forces before they move on to more advanced training.

Our troops have long had a reputation for being well disciplined, highly effective and well led, which is why the level of trust and confidence in the Canadian Forces ranks high amongst institutions in this country. And the wisdom accumulated by successive generations of Canadian military leaders represents an underutilized Canadian competitive advantage. The development of business school courses that tap into this knowledge is overdue.

Designed to be both a formative and transformative experience that students will reflect upon throughout their career, Leadership under Fire is all about getting the job done. Students must do much more than simply collaborate to achieve goals. They need to demonstrate good judgment, drive and courage in an ambiguous and challenging environment while knowing they will be held accountable for their actions and attitudes as leaders and followers. Simply put, partnering with the Canadian Forces (on a cost recovery basis) allows Ivey to introduce its students to valuable military insights while honing their individual leadership, followership and teaming abilities and instilling them with an understanding of the critical role character and commitment play in good leadership.

HOW IT WORKS

Leadership Under Fire, which is delivered by veteran Canadian officers and non-commissioned officers in partnership with Ivey faculty, has several objectives, including:

  • To create an awareness of the character-related challenges encountered in leadership and decision making in challenging and ambiguous situations;
  • To deepen student understanding of the role played by virtues and values in leadership effectiveness and the shaping of individual decisions and actions; and
  • To have students think hard about their own strengths and weaknesses (as both leaders and followers) and how to develop and maintain the required commitment, competencies and character it takes to be a good leader.

Students are divided into units with military mentors, issued uniforms, assigned ranks and then expected to effectively perform as a team while facing various challenges that expose their strengths and weaknesses in both leading and following positions. While the course features leadership presentations by both military and business leaders, the focus is on task-oriented problem solving in stressful and uncertain contexts. Each student unit, for example, is required to assess practical problems like clearing a minefield. They must develop a plan of action, communicate clear instructions and work as a team to complete the task. Unlike the case method used in class, the focus is on “what to do?” as opposed to “what would you do?”

Pretty much anyone, of course, can learn to poke a stick in the sand to clear a path through a mock minefield. But having the discipline and patience it takes to do it to military standards as part of a team exhausted by late night learning exercises and early morning marches (while sporting backpacks and carrying field equipment such as water cans and medical stretchers) is something completely different, especially when Mother Nature proves she has what it takes to be a boot camp instructor by alternatively adding torrential rain and scorching humidity, not to mention bugs and poison ivy, to the list of things making it hard to concentrate. Situational elements complicate the execution of the tasks assigned in real-life, so students participating in Leadership Under Fire quickly learn not to expect a time out to deal with bad weather or any other unexpected obstacle that makes completing tasks more difficult.

Keep in mind that tension and irritants are part of the program, making execution of assignments a true learning experience. In the field for three grueling days, students experience stress, physical fatigue and sleep deprivation. Meanwhile, military professionals constantly push the students outside their comfort zone while demanding cleanliness, discipline and respect. There is no downtime from learning. Something simple like forgetting to serve bacon with the breakfast prepared for the core group of master corporals leading the program’s exercises quickly turns into a long hard lesson on the importance of attention to detail.

MEASURING IMPACT

As an educational experience, Leadership Under Fire offers students an opportunity to open their minds and demonstrate courage by putting their leadership and followership abilities to the test in fluid and uncomfortable situations. But the physical side of the course is merely a vehicle to help students to reflect on their own character and developmental needs because good leaders require self-awareness and reflection capabilities.

Feedback on performance from faculty and military personnel plus peer evaluations on the student’s leadership and follower skills provides each participant with a roadmap for personal improvement. This requires students to be open to constructive criticism that in many cases they did not expect or want to hear.

The following comments are just some of the wide-ranging personal insights voiced during and after the course:

 

  • Being a great leader is to keep improving and learning from your mistakes and past experiences. Whether positive or negative there is a lot to learn from our past experiences, especially when we take the time to reflect upon them. In hindsight, I can see the best lessons come from my failures. It is through failures that the best successes are made.
  • I quickly learned this course was not only about being a good leader under normal circumstances but rather more heavily focused on being a good leader when everything is going wrong.
  • Remaining calm under pressure is something I need to work on. The only viable way to do this is to continue to pursue experiences like the Leadership under Fire course that will test my decision-making abilities under pressure.
  • I displayed bad temper because I didn’t stay calm and lacked self-control. I regret the way I first reacted when feeling overwhelmed… I realize that there will be many times when I will encounter unfamiliar and difficult situations. I believe the key to getting past these challenges is to stay calm and think clearly which is hard to do when you are stressed and anxious.
  • I realize now … reflection is very difficult and can be unpleasant because it is painful to think of things we put out of our minds for a reason – it can be embarrassing to look back on past failures. Our society, which values perfection, or at least a perfect image, certainly doesn’t encourage us to reflect.
  • Sometimes it takes a course like Leadership under Fire to expose your vulnerability and perhaps admit that you are not perfect.
  • Humility is hard to swallow – not everyone has it. I don’t always have it. One of the greatest challenges of Leadership under Fire was recognizing weaknesses without making justifications for the shortcomings.
  • I definitely learned a lot about how I lead and identified some major things I need to improve on. I think the stress factor was needed to remove the guise that we often put up in order to see our true character.

The deliverable for the course is a comprehensive self-reflection. Before they start, students complete an assignment that requires them to engage in a “deep excavation” around who they are, what they value and why they are who they are, which opens their minds to who they hope to become and what must be done to make it happen. Each student also completes the Leaders Character Insight Assessment (LCIA), a self-assessment resource to help individuals unpack the dimensions and elements of leader character. Other inputs used in the reflection process range from assigned readings on leadership development and speaker presentations to team debriefings and peer reviews of individual performance.

Following completion of a final self-reflection paper, participants receive a report that provides individual feedback on the 11 dimensions of leader character and their associated elements. The report also provides suggestions on how to enhance or strengthen the character dimensions.

Leadership Under Fire concludes with a formal reception and dinner. At this point, students get a well-deserved chance to relax, but the learning continues. Military personnel, including war veterans, are on hand, along with representatives from the Ivey Veteran’s Group, to share their experiences and offer valuable perspectives on leadership. Brigadier-General (retired) Gary Stafford, for example, was the guest of honour last year. After hearing about his experiences overseas, the members of Ivey Platoon gained even more appreciation for the role character and commitment play in good leadership.

As the Canadian Forces winds down its commitments in Afghanistan, there is an abundance of leadership experience and leadership character development knowledge that can be shared with educational institutions producing our economy’s future leaders. More business schools just need to tap into it.

About the Author

Gerard Seijts is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour, holds the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Chair in Leadership, and is Executive Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey….Read Gerard Seijts's full bio

About the Author

Mary Crossan is a Professor of Strategic Management at Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. She can be reached at mcrossan@ivey.uwo.ca.

About the Author

Mary Crossan is a Professor of Strategic Management at Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. She can be reached at mcrossan@ivey.uwo.ca.

About the Author

Gerard Seijts is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour, holds the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Chair in Leadership, and is Executive Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey….
Read Gerard Seijts's full bio

About the Author

John Mercer is president of John W. Mercer & Associates Inc., a Toronto-based management consulting firm specializing in corporate strategy development and high-performance manufacturing.….
Read John Mercer's full bio

About the Author

Lawrence Stevenson is a Managing Director with Toronto’s Callisto Capital, where he adds significantly to the firm’s operating focus and team of people with track records of providing….
Read Lawrence Stevenson's full bio

About the Author

Mary Crossan is a Professor of Strategic Management at Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. She can be reached at mcrossan@ivey.uwo.ca.

About the Author

Gerard Seijts is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour, holds the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Chair in Leadership, and is Executive Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey….
Read Gerard Seijts's full bio

About the Author

John Mercer is president of John W. Mercer & Associates Inc., a Toronto-based management consulting firm specializing in corporate strategy development and high-performance manufacturing.….
Read John Mercer's full bio

About the Author

Lawrence Stevenson is a Managing Director with Toronto’s Callisto Capital, where he adds significantly to the firm’s operating focus and team of people with track records of providing….
Read Lawrence Stevenson's full bio