Leadership Lessons from the Top

7/13/2012 --

Professor Scott DeRue takes leadership training to new levels with Kilimanjaro climb.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — With the business landscape growing more complex and global, leadership has never been more important. But how does one learn to lead? Professor Scott DeRue's research centers on leadership development. The best way to learn to lead, he says, is through real-life experience. DeRue has helped executives around the globe reach their full leadership potential and drive positive change in their companies. The latest experience he's designed also is one of the more adventurous — a climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro. While hiking up the tallest mountain in Africa, DeRue will challenge the group with high-impact leadership development experiences and then reflect on how the lessons learned on the mountain translate to the office. It will be a transformative leadership experience for everyone. The Ross Executive Education course Advanced Leadership in Action: Kilimanjaro will take place Dec. 29, 2012 - Jan. 5, 2013, and Sept. 9-16, 2013. National Geographic will join and document the September 2013 course.

You often say that you donít teach leadership — you design experiences where people learn leadership themselves. What does that mean, exactly?

DeRue: You do not learn how to lead by reading a book or listening to a lecture. You learn how to lead by mindfully engaging in experiences that are novel, complex, and high stakes. At Ross, we are very good at designing these experiences and then coaching students and executives on how to digest, reflect on, and learn from them. This ability to learn is vital to reaching your full leadership potential.

Is there any research that shows what types of experiences work best? If so, what are they?

DeRue: Our research shows that a transformational experience has five core features. First, the experience must present a person with novel situations that break habits and routines. Second, the experience asks the person to facilitate change within a group or community. Third, the experience puts the person in high-stakes, high-visibility situations where success and failure are consequential. Fourth, the experience requires the person to work across boundaries and influence people without relying on formal authority. Finally, the experience challenges the person to work with diverse groups of people that have different cultural norms.

How important is leadership training to a company? Why should they invest in it?

DeRue: I did a study last year that looked at every study published on leadership to date. We found that leadership accounts for 31 percent of team performance and 56 percent of job satisfaction and engagement. Research has found similar findings for predicting firm performance. So, yes, leadership matters, and it matters a lot. Today, about 25 percent of Fortune 500 training budgets are dedicated to leadership development. Companies already are investing in leadership development at a high rate. The question they need to be asking is what the return on that investment is. Does your leadership program exhibit the five core features of a truly transformative experience? If not, I would seriously question the value of the investment.

What gave you the idea to conduct a leadership course while hiking up Kilimanjaro?

DeRue: I have been climbing things since I was a kid. What started with trees has turned into a passion for mountaineering. On my first trip up Kilimanjaro, I watched our team of 10 climbers, seven guides, and 52 porters deal with changing weather, personal adversity, soaring emotions, and challenging group dynamics. These all are challenges that leaders have to face in their professional lives, but all of the things we have a hard time simulating in classroom environments. At that point, I decided that this program had to happen.

Why Kilimanjaro?

DeRue: Kilimanjaro is special. An average, healthy person can reach its summit. But the experience of getting there — as a team — has every attribute of a transformative, developmental experience. The novelty of the experience forces you to adapt and change. You are part of a diverse group of high-achieving individuals. But to succeed you have to become a team. You have to work together to make tough decisions. You really learn how to work together and leverage others to overcome adversity. It is the perfect laboratory for learning leadership.

What will participants experience on the climb, and how do you help them apply that to their professional life?

DeRue: Team members will be challenged to take responsibility not only for themselves, but for the leadership of the team. This is not your typical trek or climb. Professional guides will support the team, but the team will be responsible for building itself into a cohesive unit, establishing a culture of empathy and accountability, and developing trusting relationships. Each day, the group will face specific team-building and leadership challenges. We will use my research-based reflection process to document our performance in these challenges, and work together to connect and apply the lessons of those experiences to our professional lives. I expect that each of us will walk away with lessons that transform not only our businesses, but also ourselves as people.

Whatís the one thing you would want somebody who takes this course to come away with?

DeRue: A clear roadmap for how to enable others to excel — which is the essence of leadership.

— Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502, terrykos@umich.edu