Queensland University of Technology, QUT Business School
Oxfam Trailwalker: An Adaptive Leadership Course
Designed in partnership with Oxfam’s 55-kilometer Trailwalker charity event, this experiential course requires students to utilize their essential business acumen in a live outdoor environment where leadership decisions have real consequences.
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The initial motivation for this project was based on a simple premise, as stated by the QUT MBA director, Glen Murphy, in the Australian Financial Review: "You can only do so much in a classroom. The more you use simulations, the more you use experiential exercises, that's really where people are going to be quite challenged yet have the most potential to learn about themselves.”
In essence, in the context of leadership development, the only way to identify the potential gap between the “idealized” self and the “realized” self is to put students into situations or contexts that require them to exercise their leadership capabilities under duress. If effectively designed, these exercises provide optimal conditions for reflection and growth.
Therefore, the guiding pedagogical principle was that leadership cannot be completely and authentically developed in a classroom. As such, the QUT Business School developed a leadership program built around the execution of Oxfam’s 55-kilometer Trailwalker charity event. This combined the experiential and emergent nature of a psychologically and physically demanding outdoor activity with applied leadership theory. The overall aim was to genuinely develop and expand leadership capabilities.
In addition to leadership skills, the event required students to draw from essential MBA skills such as teamwork, strategy, marketing, financial management, project planning, networking, negotiating, and problem-solving. Furthermore, participating in the event allowed the MBA students to showcase their talents to a broader audience and contribute positively to the wider community.
The Adaptive Leadership course was designed to put QUT Business School’s students in uncomfortable, unfamiliar settings with real consequences to their actions, thus highlighting their various leadership characteristics and creating the catalyst for leadership growth.
However, one design challenge was to identify a mechanism suitably authentic and challenging while ensuring that risk management and governance controls were in place to protect all involved. Given these parameters, the Oxfam Australia 55-kilometer Trailwalker event was identified as a useful platform around which to build the leadership course.
The Oxfam Trailwalker challenge is a “pay to play” model, each team having to raise a mandatory minimum of roughly 1,100 USD to participate. The event requires teams to navigate steep, challenging wilderness terrain that requires extensive preparation and training. Critically, both aspects (fundraising and hiking) contained a high-risk quotient, requiring team members to employ both leadership and “follower-ship” behaviors in order to successfully complete the entire event.
The course was open to all enrolled MBA students who had completed at least two-thirds of their degree. The teams were allowed to self-select and were required to participate in a series of advanced masterclass workshops designed to inform and facilitate their activities over a 14-week period.
Workshop topics included adaptive leadership, intentionality and strategy, negotiation under pressure, mindfulness and awareness, and conversations and relationships.
Individual and group-based assessments included presenting a project plan, developing a risk management strategy, and submitting reflections on their leadership journey by keeping a blog diary.
The first MBA team to complete the challenge—named “These Suits Were Made for Walking”—finished in just over 11 hours. Upon finishing, participant Tom Hodginson observed, “You really don’t know what you’re going to get out of this until you cross the finish line.”
The course was a tremendous success on both an individual and institutional level, as well as in terms of broader community engagement. All five teams successfully completed the event and collectively raised just under 23,500 USD for a respected and worthwhile charity. Subsequently, QUT was awarded the Highest Corporate Fundraising Award for their efforts, the best possible representation of the QUT Business School.
Students have provided lots of positive feedback regarding the course, stating that it “really delivered on the ‘real world’ promise of the university as a whole,” and that, while the level of commitment required for the course far surpassed average, in context with “the amount of satisfaction and learning gained,” it was well worth it.
The fundraising success of the teams has also prompted Oxfam Australia to contract one QUT student to develop a comprehensive corporate fundraising strategy for 2018.
Additionally, QUT has agreed to extend its collaboration with Oxfam in 2018 to drive the involvement of other higher education institutions.
Most importantly, the QUT cohort successfully raised just under 23,500 USD for a worthy cause and demonstrated the significant positive impact that a cohort of well-trained, well-motivated MBAs can have on society and the global community.