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Leadership Under Fire shapes students into better leaders

Sep 10, 2021

HBA students participating in Leadership Under Fire

HBA students participating in Leadership Under Fire.

Kimberley Young Milani

Bending, but not breaking. That’s how 40 HBA students found out firsthand about their leader character at Ivey’s Leadership Under Fire program.

Developed by Professors Gerard Seijts and Lyn Purdy, together with retired military leaders David Quick and Paul Carroll, both EMBA ’16, the elective is modelled after the Basic Officer Training Course that Canadian Forces officers take. The five-day program held at an undisclosed location combined the best military leadership principles with real-world business applications, hence the mantra, battlefield-tested – boardroom approved. But, instead of military tactics, students learned how to accomplish “missions” in stressful and uncertain environments that demanded both leadership and followership and revealed their leader character.

“In a classroom setting, where you’re warm and it’s well lit, you can say what you would do in a certain circumstance, and it’s hard to prove or disprove that,” said Carroll, president of Pathfinder Leadership Associates (PLA) and Head of Global Banking and Markets Business Continuity and Resilience at Scotiabank. “But when you’re in an environment where you’re cold, wet, hungry, tired, and confused and where leadership is truly required, then what does that look like for you as a leader?”

Whether pulling heavy ammunition cans on a sled across a soccer field, being given purposefully confusing instructions, or losing all electronic forms of communications, each task challenged the teams mentally, emotionally, and physically. After each mission, students were debriefed by their mentors – both military veterans and those transitioning to the private sector – to tease out the lessons learned and share those insights with the larger group.

“We also really emphasize the importance of followership. People may see these as opposites, but a good follower, by his or her example, is in fact, a good leader,” said Carroll, a veteran of five tours in Afghanistan and numerous other locations around the world. “We hope to break the paradigm that says: ‘Well, I’m just a follower, and inconsequential to this situation.’ That’s patently untrue. As a follower, you have a tremendous ability to demonstrate leadership, and I don’t think people realize that.”

Leadership that helps others succeed

Yudi Yang, HBA ’22 candidate

Leadership Under Fire was a challenging event for Yudi Yang, HBA ’22 candidate. But the lessons learned were invaluable. For example, in one exercise, all teams were required to work together to move boxes from one quadrant to another with cables. But not all leaders had a full view of what was happening.

“Although you may be the leader, your perspective isn’t always sufficient,” she said. “You have to have trust in your team and feel comfortable delegating tasks to others in order to accomplish the task successfully.”

Yang found many ways to encourage her teammates.

“When my team was low on food, lacked sleep, and had been losing challenge after challenge, what kept us going was creating and performing a team cheer. I worked hard to maintain a smile and constantly using my body language and voice to pump up my team, which helped us develop an even stronger bond,” she said.

Yang also learned about her own leadership style.

“I learned that I was more capable than I thought. The implication is that it is so important to use my voice and presence to elevate the others around me, who maybe aren’t there yet, and to empower them by giving them my trust, to allow them to succeed even more,” she said.

Effective leadership is about people

Sammy Fleisher, HBA ’22 candidate

Sammy Fleisher, HBA ’22 candidate, summed up the experience in one word: introspection.

“I think a lot of times you’re so busy in life and you finish one task and go right to the next one, and you don’t actually look back and say, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have done that, or said something in that way.’” said Fleisher.

Leaders at the course put an emphasis on not just doing the activity, but taking the time afterwards to debrief and understand what went right (and wrong). Many of the important lessons also came from fellow students. Just as in case learning, Fleisher learned much from his peers.

“I didn’t come into the course with the intention of learning this, but I also saw how important it was to be a good follower,” he said. “Everyone’s here because they love to lead, and they’ve been groomed to lead. I learned how important it was to pick your moments to speak and know when to be quiet.”

Fleisher also noted how critical people were to the successful completion of their tasks.

“It’s always about people. If you have people who are motivated, working hard and working cohesively, you’re going to get that task done much more easily. I’d say the number one takeaway for me was focusing on people,” he said.

Building leader character

Professor Gerard Seijts, Executive Director, Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

“Good leadership is a function of competencies, character, and commitment,” said Gerard Seijts, Executive Director, Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership. “This course helps to create awareness of the critical role character plays alongside competencies and commitment in leadership, in particular in challenging and ambiguous situations.  Moreover, the students experience character in action, and reflect on their character strengths and weaknesses. If we would like to develop character, then for sure they have to go through an experience like Leadership Under Fire. People have to step out of their comfort zone. And sometimes we have to set people up for failure. That way they can reflect on that experience, identify behavioural goals, and give it another kick at the can, so to speak, because that’s how character develops. Our promise to the students is to offer a formative and transformative experience.  I hope that the course is one of the most rewarding training and development events they will ever experience.”

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