Innovations That Inspire

Western University

Western University, Ivey Business School

Category: Enhancing Approaches to Leadership Education Development

Location: London, Ontario, Canada
Accreditation Status: Not Accredited

Innovation Title

Leadership Under Fire: Developing Leadership Character

Innovation Statement

Experienced military leaders teach students how to solve problems in stressful and uncertain contexts, bringing the insights of good leadership developed over generations of military service.

Call to Action

One of the foundations of leadership is the ability to accomplish a task by influencing the behavior of people. To do that, a leader has to be able to assess a situation, develop a plan, issue clear instructions, and then oversee the execution of the plan.

The problem with trying to teach leadership in a classroom setting is that students never really get beyond assessing a situation and developing a plan; there typically is no opportunity to issue instructions to a team and execute the plan. The course Leadership Under Fire: Developing Leadership Character expands the classroom to the next level to include experiential learning using “crucible” moments essential for leader-character learning and development.

Crucibles are transformative experiences; they test, shape, and reveal something about how people see themselves. Though crucibles are often depicted as tragedies or traumatic experiences, they need not be, and many crucible moments come from challenging experiences that cause individuals to reflect on their successes or failures and to re-examine their character and character strengths.

The course has three primary learning objectives:

  • To create an awareness of the character-related challenges encountered in leadership, especially during decision-making in challenging and ambiguous situations.
  • To deepen the understanding of the role of virtues and character strengths in leadership effectiveness and how they shape decisions and subsequent actions.
  • To think about character strengths as both a leader and follower and to develop a detailed plan to further develop both character strengths and deficiencies.

Innovation Description

The course Leadership Under Fire: Developing Leadership Character is not exactly based on military tactics but on task-oriented problem-solving in stressful and uncertain contexts that require students to assess a practical problem, develop a plan to solve the problem, communicate clear instructions to a group of peers, then lead the group through to the completion of the task.

However, the course is not a glorified summer camp or a simple walk in the woods.

The five-day, off-site course is conducted at an undisclosed facility in an austere environment. Instruction in the process of evaluating problems and developing and executing plans are conducted by experienced military leaders either recently retired from or currently serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.

All instructors have faced combat in war zones such as Afghanistan, and include representation from Canada’s secretive, elite special forces unit, JTF2. Instructors are hand-picked and are exceptional teachers.

The students face challenging physical activities and demanding team tasks, which require them to activate most, if not all, leader-character dimensions that an Ivey research team has identified as important for successful and ethical leadership.

Various challenges are built into the course to expose students' strengths and weaknesses in both their leading and following roles. The focus in the course is on “what you do in this situation,” as opposed to the case method of learning, where the focus is on “what would you do?”—which is the dominant teaching approach at almost any business school.

The deliverable for the course is a 25-page, individual self-reflection paper.

Impact

The course was specifically designed to push students beyond their comfort zone. It is intense and fundamentally different from traditional teaching methods at Ivey Business School. The demanding physical, mental, and emotional challenges that students face are instrumental in prompting the sense-making necessary to evaluate their character dimensions and how these impact their leadership.

Perhaps the most effective way to demonstrate the overall impact is the reflections from student participants. Here is a sampling of reflections:

“I think the course did a great job of simulating the psychological stress needed for us to experience stress and see how we lead under stress. I know I definitely learned a lot about how I lead and some major things to improve on. I think the stress factor was needed to remove the guise that we often put up and allow us to see our true character."

“There were many times when I considered giving up and going home, but I am glad I stayed. I strongly believe this experience will have a significant influence on the type of leader I will one day become, and I know I will be reflecting on this experience for many years to come.”

“I truly believe that the Leadership Under Fire course was one of the most important experiences I will take part in throughout my life, and I think there is much more the military has to teach us."

“Leadership Under Fire was a truly transformational experience for me and I think there is a lot of potential to continue the impact.”

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