A team of 20 elite women and men meet to review the execution of a remarkably successful strategy, one that enabled them to beat two competing squads. “You guys doubled your targets,” a meeting facilitator named Josh tells them. “So you used your strategy sessions efficiently. Can you tell me what you think worked in particular?”

A serious-looking young man speaks first. “We listened to each other in an iterative way,” he says. Everyone nods.

“We discussed, then we optimized,” a woman says.

A colleague adds, “We managed to maintain a confident environment, even when we dropped the ball.”

“How were the decisions made?” Josh asks.

“We all tried to match people to their best abilities,” says another.

“Right,” a teammate adds. “Some people focused on strategies, while others focused on operations.”

Josh leans forward. “What strategy worked in particular?”

“The chicken talks!” several yell at once.

Wait, what?

The teammates—first-year MBA students in Cluster 1, Cohort A—had been at Wharton for less than a week. Their meeting took place on lush green grass beneath a tent on the Deerfield Golf Course in Newark, Delaware. During a sultry mid-morning in August, they played one of those classic team-building games, this one utilizing a set of balls and a rubber chicken. Winning required coordination, delegation, and strategizing on the fly, all of which this “pod”—a third of the cohort—had performed with the cheerful intensity of a Silicon Valley startup. In the middle of a chaotic first round, teammates were all shouting instructions over each other when one woman pulled everything together with a spontaneous announcement: Whoever had possession of the chicken could make the tactical decisions. It was a brilliant poultry-based version of the Native American talking stick common in summer camps and New Age retreats. And it worked.

The follow-up with facilitator Josh McLane WG17, a Leadership Fellow and second-year MBA student, was perhaps the most serious, articulate discussion ever to focus on a bad stand-up comedy prop.

This being Wharton, the game had an overtly serious side, preparing these students for a rigorous yearlong education in leadership. Thanks to a $10 million gift from Anne Welsh McNulty WG79, the program under whose auspices these students are learning has been renamed the Anne and John McNulty Leadership Program. Founding partner of JBK Partners and a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, McNulty made the gift in part to honor her late husband, John, who had a keen interest in developing young leaders. The gift endows the program’s educational efforts—both curricular and those sponsored by the school without credit—for undergraduates, MBAs and executive MBAs. The money will also enable new programs and workshops to increase what the faculty calls “leadership agility” in a diverse, global and digital world.

All of which raises the obvious question: Can leadership actually be taught? Given how well the first-years handled that rubber chicken, an observer might reasonably conclude that every one of them was to the leadership manner born.



“Leadership” Is an Active Verb

The philosophy of the McNulty Program relies on the belief, backed by considerable research, that leaders aren’t necessarily born—or made, exactly. “Mark Zuckerberg can drop out of college and succeed,” concedes Mike Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management. “Some people are naturally gifted. For the rest of us, leadership development is an art that can be pursued.”

The McNulty Leadership Program began 25 years ago, reflecting a change in attitudes toward management. For one thing, organizational hierarchies were beginning to flatten. “Back then, the standard was seven by seven,” Useem says. “Seven leaders each having seven reports. Now, people look at that sort of structure and say, ‘Were they crazy?’” Meanwhile, the growing availability of data began to change the way managers made decisions; no longer did the so-called “Great Man” model of leadership, based on natural ability and instinct, seem to make sense. What’s more, the nature of Wharton’s student body was changing. Forty-four percent of current students are women; 32% percent are international students representing 71 countries. “When they graduate, they go not just to P&G but to Lenovo,” Useem says. The internationalization of Wharton reflects the global nature of business: To succeed in their careers, students must learn to collaborate with professionals from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds.

Add to all these factors the rapid changes in economic and trade forces, markets and technology. The world has become a series of fast-moving balls and chickens, requiring iterative listening, matching teammates to their best abilities, and maintaining a confident environment. Leadership, say the people who lead the McNulty Leadership Program, is “an action, not a destination.” Rather than a title to pursue, leading is a matter of stepping up at the right times.

Indeed, Jeff Klein, the program’s executive director, seems a bit uncomfortable even using “leadership” as a term to encompass all it entails at Wharton. “Students from different countries bring different values to the word,” he says. Klein sees leadership as a sort of catalyst, one that brings positive change and good strategic decisions to a team or organization. In this respect, it’s almost not a noun at all. Come up with an active verb for “leadership,” and you not only have a great book title. You come close to what the McNulty program is all about.

Learning from General Lee’s Mistake

Anne McNulty endowed the program’s educational efforts, connecting students—undergraduates, MBAs and executive MBAs, along with managers and executives—to a three-pronged approach: intellectual, relational and experiential. First comes the faculty-and-classroom part. Through courses such as Management 100, students learn what Useem and his colleagues at the Leadership Program call a “collective framework” and a “common vocabulary.” In other words, they learn the theoretical side of leadership. In Management 610—which the MBA students take after the retreat—they zero in on the central skills and traits of leadership. Learning teams conduct business simulations, playing leadership roles in an electric car company. The goals of the experience are to learn leadership skills, work in teams, and understand organizational change and culture. “They’re learning to become persuasive communicators, strategic thinkers and decisive decision-makers,” Useem says. “It doesn’t end there, but those are at the core of anybody’s effective leadership.”

You can see some of the fruits of that research in a checklist Mike Useem created—15 “mission-critical princi­ples” of leadership. A good leader articulates a persuasive, pragmatic vision. She “embraces a bias for action,” making timely decisions and stepping up at the right moments. She “honors the room,” supporting teammates and employees. She delegates the tactical stuff to people on the front lines, keeps them motivated, and develops leaders among them, making sure she has a diverse set of direct reports. She uses her emotional intelligence, reading the emotions of others, building personal ties, and conveying a trustworthy character of good integrity. She shows she has the organization’s best interest at heart, putting its concerns above her own. And she doesn’t let success go to the group’s head. She looks for lingering problems and sets realistic expectations.

The conceptual part of Wharton’s leadership education covers more than theory. The program also teaches through the example of actual leaders, living and dead. William Ford has come to campus, speaking of disruptive innovations in the automobile industry. Arthur Sulzberger shared his efforts to take the New York Times digital—a disruption all its own. Mike Useem, a Civil War buff, likes to use examples from that war to show how leadership works and where it fails. Why did Robert E. Lee order the reluctant General George Pickett to orchestrate a disastrous charge against Union troops at Gettysburg? The reasons behind a brilliant leader’s biggest blunder—bad information, interpreted badly—apply perfectly to strategic decisions in business practices today, Useem says, from manufacturing to private equity.

All of which can be taught, he adds. Every Wharton MBA student can choose to have an executive coach to help plan courses and career. “Our working philosophy, especially in leadership and teamwork,” Useem says, “is that while the classroom is great, we also need a coach.”

Trust Through Story

Teamwork: The program’s relational aspect appears right at the start of an MBA’s experience at Wharton. A day after the games at Deerfield Golf Course, Cohort A meets in Huntsman Hall at nine in the morning. The group’s three Leadership Fellows greet them with doughnut holes and more exercises. They tell students to pair up and describe their favorite thing about the place they came from, switching off after two minutes. The first-years instantly attach to one another, and a healthy cocktail-chatter buzz warms the room. After the group deals with a few logistical matters, the mood suddenly becomes serious. For the rest of the morning, each student will meet the four or five classmates who will compose his or her learning team for the next two years. During those two hours, each team member will tell the personal tale that most reveals what motivates him or her. To set an example, the three Leadership Fellows get up in front of the room and tell their own stories.

Jesse Ge WG17 leads off by saying, “I first met my parents when I was five years old.” His parents left China for America when Jesse was an infant; he stayed with doting grandparents until his mother and father earned enough to bring their son to the States. Doctors in China, they both ended up busing tables, delivering Chinese food, and working the late shift in a motel, starting again from scratch in America. He closes his story on a powerful note: “I want to do everything I can to live up to the sacrifices my parents made.”

Josh McLane reveals his sense of responsibility and feeling of helplessness for a close relative who can’t get his life together. He tells the group, “When you look under the surface of everyone else at Wharton, there’s a little more to them than you expect. It’s important to know that many people go through Wharton looking confident and making decisions about their lives, but there is more to their story than you can see. A little bit of empathy and awareness goes a long way.”

Ras Gill-Boulos WG17, born in Singapore and the daughter of diplomats, speaks last. In Toronto, where she’s lived for the past 10 years, she was riding her bicycle when a car hit her. She spent four months in the hospital, and doctors feared she would never have use of her right arm again. For the next year and a half, she worked four hours a day with a physical therapist, proving the doctors wrong. “Each of you has a story that makes you who you are,” Gill-Boulos says. “Don’t lose that.”

To someone who hasn’t gone through the first-year leadership experience at Wharton, the session seems impossibly un-business-school-like. By the end of the Leadership Fellows’ stories, five students are crying. Yet these revelations of authenticity, these true tales of motivation, are essential parts of the program. The LFs themselves have been carefully selected. To qualify, a rising second-year student writes four essays, goes through a battery of interviews, and then auditions in a practice session, leading one of the Deerfield exercises. Money clearly is no motive; the pay—about $2,400 for the year—is unimpressive. “Orientation can be pretty daunting,” says Margaret Ewen WG17, a tall, clipboard-wielding Leadership Fellow accompanying Cohort C at Deerfield. “But my orientation made a big impact on me, and I want to be able to give back.”

Over the next two days, four LFs independently say almost the exact same thing. Josh McLane is among them, but he adds that the act of serving provides an education: “By helping to teach leadership, you learn about leading.”

In Huntsman Hall after the storytelling, Ge tells the first-years to “build a foundation of trust. Be present,” he urges them. “Maintain a safe space.”

His words reflect the “relational” part of the program: building a support network. At the same time, students pick up on a skill—the ability to foster trust among a diverse set of people. The program’s administrators try to form learning teams with a mix of genders and cultural backgrounds. Over the next two years, each Wharton student will join an average of 15 teams, Jeff Klein notes—counting class study groups, sports and other extracurriculars, volunteer activities and the like. Besides, businesses themselves have turned from top-down management to management through networks. “Leadership means co-creating a vision,” Klein says. “It’s not just having a vision and persuading others into it.”

Bias for Action

It’s no accident that students get an introduction to leadership by passing a rubber chicken around under pressure. The program has its own bias for action; along with the intellectual and relational parts, Wharton Leadership Ventures form a crucial third leg through “stretch experiences.” Students go on outdoor expeditions lasting up to seven days, venturing through challenging terrain in Antarctica, Alaska, Patagonia and New Zealand, with guides from Vertical and the National Outdoor Leadership School, among others. Participants take turns leading the group, which holds regular after-action reviews.

Closer to home, groups of up to 90 students spend one or two days on “Intensives”—realistic high-stress experiences. Each year, two groups go through Quantico’s Officer Candidates School Leadership Reaction Course, with Marine Corps captains acting as drill instructors and barking orders at welcome-to-boot-camp volume. One particularly painful (and, from a leadership standpoint, educational) part of the experience is the evening’s bed-making ritual. Students must make up a perfect military-style bed, redoing it as many times as it takes. Poorly made beds result in punishment of the entire group. “The mentality goes from ‘I need to perform well’ to ‘We need to perform well,’” Klein says. “I had a vision of the military as hierarchical, but this intensive really teaches you the trust the Marines place in each other, regardless of level.” At Quantico, groups move on to time-bound problems, leading a fire team, running a combat course, and working to transfer a barrel from one platform to the next without anyone touching the barrel or the barrel touching the ground. Other Intensives take place at West Point, the Naval Academy, and the University of Pennsylvania Hospital Trauma Center. Another group performs actual fire drills with the Fire Department of New York.

In addition to the expeditions and Intensives, students take workshops to learn specific skills. Mike Useem leads one on Gettysburg. The Pig Iron Theatre Company leads workshops on collaborative creativity. Through other workshops, students can learn mindfulness, influence, and emotional intelligence.

Another opportunity comes through the option of serving on a nonprofit board. Students can apply to become apprentice board members on nonprofits in the greater Philadelphia area. Nonprofit Board Fellows serve for a year, getting on-campus training and support. Some of that support comes from fellow students who have had previous nonprofit board experience.

The service aspect of leadership is a component of Management 100 as well. Students are grouped into teams of 10 that take on a service project in Philadelphia for clients like the Red Cross or the American Cancer Society. They tend to be projects that require individual contributions in the form of creativity, problem-solving and logistics, and they need a quantifiable end result. The teams are self-managing, and it’s up to students to determine who should oversee each piece of the project. “Inevitably, the light bulb goes off that the group will get more done if they don’t fight about who’s in charge,” says the program’s deputy director Anne Greenhalgh. “I’ve been watching this since its inception, and I’m well acquainted with the trajectory.” Blackstone Group analyst Sam Rappaport W15 was a teaching assistant for Management 100 as a Wharton undergraduate. He remembers working with a children’s services organization on a food drive for his first-year project: “You realize that some people are good at creative marketing, others are good at face-to-face meetings, and some are good at organizing events. You have to ask, ‘How can I contribute?’”

The program’s service aspect challenges one of the oldest definitions of a leader in Western literature. The ancient rhetorician Quintilian defined the leader as “a good man, speaking well.” That concept continues to widen at Wharton, and students learn that speaking well is only a part of the active verb of leading. During the retreat at Deerfield, while members of McLane’s pod are reviewing their winning performance, the Leadership Fellow speaks to them in a voice so quiet that they strain to hear him over the background chorus of summer cicadas. “Very often the extroverts are the ones heard,” McLane says. “Are they necessarily the best ones to lead? Play with the team dynamic. If you’re used to being the first to speak, try following.”

In other words: Let the chicken talk.

Published as “Leadership Without Limits” in the Fall 2016 issue of Wharton Magazine.