Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Students learn to lead from the edge

On an overcast, drizzly September day at Camp Hale near Leadville, Colo. — where soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division trained during World War II — a group of Daniels College of Business MBA students walked in the footsteps of history while making some of their own.

They were the first students to go through a new Daniels College of Business course, Leading at the Edge. The course is one of six required courses comprising the Daniels Compass, a curriculum focused on ethics, values-based leadership, innovation, sustainability, globalization and adaptability.

“The premise is that students today need something in addition to the traditional business skills like accounting, management, and marketing,” says Daniels Interim Dean Bruce Hutton, one of the architects of the program. “Not that those aren’t essential, but for the situations students will find themselves in the future, they need skills to traverse a highly changing environment.”

The program is intended to teach students “portable skills,” that allow them to work in complex environments where there may be no clear black and white answers Hutton says. “We’re trying to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet, and to be able to solve problems that aren’t even problems today.  What kind of skills do you teach today that prepares them for such a future?”

For two days, 110 students trained in Florissant, Colo., learning leadership, team-building and problem-solving skills.

On the morning of the third day, the students boarded a bus to Camp Hale and were given a memo: They are employees of Mountain Escapades Inc., a multinational mining company, and one of the company’s tanker trucks has overturned, spilling arsenic into a river and nearby village. They have to manage the situation

At Camp Hale, cries of “off belay” were sent up the rock as students reached the bottom after rappelling down its face — one of six challenges they would face that day.

Kerry Plemmons, a Daniels associate clinical professor and member of the Compass development committee, says the physical aspect of Leading at the Edge is designed to open students’ eyes. “When you get out of the classroom and get together to solve problems, you learn a lot about yourself,” he says. “Leadership transformation can’t be taught in the classroom.”

The stories of the 10th Mountain Division inspired Hutton, who says he was impressed with the innovation and leadership skills the men showed, as well as with their sense of service to the community after the war.

Those skills and values are what Hutton wants to instill in students through the Daniels Compass. “Coming out of the Compass, those students should have a sense of self-awareness and their place in our society in a way that helps them contribute and take responsibility for both their personal lives and their professional lives,” he says.

As he watched the students working together to solve the challenges of the mock crisis on the same grounds where the soldiers of the 10th once trained for war, he said he hoped students grasped the significance of the moment. “They need to understand the world didn’t begin with them,” Hutton said. “You can learn a lot from history. History is a powerful tool for understanding yourself and the future. They should understand that and take advantage of it.”

At the end of the day, the students gathered to reflect on the experience. One by one they stood and said what the three days of Leading at the Edge meant to them. Many of the same words were used: confidence, respect, teamwork, friendship. When it was MBA student Christen Robledo’s turn to speak, she crystallized what Hutton hopes students learn from the program: “Before this, I felt like I was coming to get my MBA,” she said, stressing the word my.

“After this, I feel like we’re all in it together.”

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