It’s nearly nightfall when two buses packed with 80 Wharton MBA candidates and 10 Wharton undergraduates arrive at the Marine Officer Candidate training ground in Quantico, Virginia. The students, chatty and animated during their trek south from Philadelphia, now whisper in nervous anticipation.
A barrel-chested Marine sergeant boards the bus and stands facing them in the aisle. “You are in my world now,” he barks. “You will do as I say and you will do it quickly and you will do it without question. Is that clear?” “YES.” “You are to refer to me as sir, is that clear?” “YES SIR.” “I can’t hear you.” “YES SIR!”
The outline of several other drill sergeants, four men and one woman, appear on the lawn beside the bus. Beside them are two neat piles of 90 canteens on belts and 90 helmets. The candidates stumble off both buses, women in one group and men in another. They form up in ranks and columns, dress left and right, and tighten up.
What’s behind this odd pairing of Wharton students and the Marines? A 24- hour crash course in boot camp survival that’s actually a high-level leadership venture organized by the Wharton Veterans Club and management professor Michael Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management. Atypical as is seems, Useem believes a combination of forced teamwork, toughness, and extreme physical and mental challenges is just what potential business leaders need to succeed in today’s fast-changing global market.
“With the rise of the Internet, intensifying competition, and globalizing equity markets, students will need to know how to act fast without necessarily having all the information in front of them,” says Useem, who developed the program with Wharton graduate students Vince Martino and Jason Santamaria, veterans of the Marine Corps, Pat Henahan, an Army veteran, and Steve Medland, a Navy veteran. A $25,000 sponsorship from Lehman Brothers, Useem says, helped make the program possible.
This Wild West approach to teaching leadership is nothing new for Useem: the Harvard PhD has made headlines for his annual Mount Everest Leadership Trek, a 16-day high-altitude trek he leads for Wharton MBA graduates, participants in Wharton Executive Education Programs and managers with company sponsors in the Leadership Center.
Such intense, rigorous programs, Useem explains, are unparalleled in their ability to teach something he calls the “need for speed” – perhaps the most dramatic change facing business leaders today. “It’s great to be analytical, but you can’t be analytical too long. You have to face up to your challenges and then act. Working fast and focused and being able to gather all the facts are what’s needed from a leader in a rapidly changing and demanding situation, and our leadership ventures are intended to build those capacities.”
And who better to teach fast and focused leadership than the military, says Steve Medland, a retired Navy nuclear submarine officer. “The military teaches loyalty upwards and downwards and that brings with it an interdependence. You have to rely on those you are leading to make the right decisions and to disagree with you if they feel they have to. You have to be able to explain why you should take an initiative and have faith in the knowledge that you’ve trained your team well.”
Such lessons transfer well to the business world, where real teams are too rare and the mercenary drive is often too strong, says Useem, author of The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All. But the demand for speed to market and emerging customer impatience, he says, are just two elements that have placed the premium on collaborative teamwork in the business world.
“Companies need team leaders, not primadonnas; if you’re a showboat, you’re not going to build the enterprise. Our leadership program puts a premium on collaboration,” says Useem, who completed the course himself earlier this year. This April, he joined his first group of student recruits and eagerly observed their reactions to real-life lessons he believes they will carry with them for the rest of their careers.
Though it’s become all the rage to pay lip service to the importance of team building in today’s companies, too few actually build effective teams and cultivate leaders. The Marine Corps, on the other hand, has a decades-old, integrated approach to leadership. The fact that commanders must rely on their frontline officers gives credence to the idea that many within a team can lead. Indeed, in the Corps, those at the top are often forced to rely on subordinates to make the right decisions in critical situations. For such initiatives to be successful in the boardroom, CEOs must similarly adopt an aggressive sense of camaraderie and a willingness to delegate and trust.
Inside the men’s barracks, two rows of men stand alert before their bunks. One sergeant prowls up and down between them, stopping now and then to bellow into a pallid face. Only 15 minutes have passed since their arrival, but the students seem to have already disappeared. In their place stands a pack of soldiers who snap to attention and bark answers as one.
“Ears!” shouts the sergeant.
“Open!” the students shout back.
Creating a sense of urgency in a chaotic and unpredictable environment is a critical aspect of the training experience, says Major Patrick Kelleher, operations officer at Quantico. “We try to expand the students’ exposure to leadership styles and techniques. By taking the course, they gain an understanding of Marine Corps philosophy as it pertains to decision-making. We train leadership. We make Marines to win battles,” says the 34-year-old. “But the fundamentals are different. A bad decision in the business world means you may lose some money; in the Marine Corps, you could get someone killed.”
Drill sergeant Lee Bonar explains to the students how to attach their canteens to their belts. He tells them they are not to be without these belts during their entire stay.
“I’ll be daggoned if one of you is going to dehydrate and go down as a heat casualty,” Bonar says. He then tells them how to make their beds, explaining that the Marines have a special way of making their beds, a special way of sleeping in the building. He gives them 10 minutes to make their beds, or sleep on the floor.
Frantic activity erupts in the men’s barracks, with sheets flying from one end of the long room to another. The sergeant yells at a few men who have finished.
“Why do you think you are finished?” he bellows. “If you got time, you help someone else!”
“Two minutes,” Bonar roars to the frenzied group.
The students stand by their footlockers as Bonar strides to the end of the room, his displeasure unmistakable. “You call this a neat bed, soldier? Do you? Answer me when I’m talking to you.”
This unique leadership program, Useem and Major Kelleher believe, will build confidence and give students the tools to make rapid decisions. “We screen for people that have the ability to quickly assess the situation and make the appropriate decision to ensure the firefight, to capture the battle, or win the firefight during a time when decisions are often made in an information vacuum,” says Kelleher. “We look for people that have inherent moral, physical and intellectual capability. Leadership potential means confidence and willingness to take charge. Once we make that selection, we give them the tools to enhance their decision-making ability issuing orders or communicating a plan.”
The course has quickly developed a following. A host of other non-Marine groups have signed up and completed the boot camp program, including the Notre Dame men’s soccer team, U.S. Congressional staffers and a national youth leadership forum. Safety is always a consideration, Kelleher says. “We know they haven’t had the physical training and we’ll approach at a slower pace. We understand they’re coming from a different background. We’ve tailor-made the course for Wharton. One of the great things about this course is that the Marine Corps has not changed for 50 years. The techniques and mechanics may evolve, but the overarching principals have not changed.”
Useem’s goal was “total immersion” for the students.
“Wharton students have a remarkable capacity to learn,” he says. “The essence of our program with the Marine Corps is that the learning curve becomes much steeper. Students are thrust into fast-action real problem solving in the Marines’ world famous combat and leadership reaction courses. I believe that many of our students learned more about leadership and teamwork in the 24 hours on these two courses than they might during a whole year inside a classroom. A key ingredient is the intensity of the experience, first introduced by the drill instructors and later by the officers on the course. I think many of the students underestimated the Marines’ ability to influence their psyche. An experience like this goes beyond intellectual stimulation. This was a tremendous way to mobilize.”
Late into the night, the “candidates” (they are no longer business students, but officer candidates) form up in ranks and march from the barracks, across the parking lot and through the night to the mess hall, where they sit waiting in wooden chairs.
The sergeants, including those from the women’s barracks, file to the back of the room behind them. Colonel George Flynn, commanding officer of the Officer Candidate School, takes the floor. Flynn speaks softly and smiles, and the tension begins to ease. Could the evening’s discipline finally have ended, the candidates wonder?
“I want you to know,” Flynn laughs, pointing to members of the Wharton Veterans Club sitting in back “that this drilling was their idea. We wanted to be nice to you.”
“The students collectively slumped in their seats,” Useem recalls later. “But many of the students told me when we arrived back to campus that they wished the Marines had kept that pressure going.”
Flynn spent the rest of the evening explaining the mission of the Marines. “Most of the business world looks at leadership as a soft skill,” Flynn tells the room. “But the Marines call it a hard skill. Ductus Exemplo, ‘leadership by example.’ If you believe in yourself, you can lead. By the time you leave here, we expect to see that you have progressed from self to team. We expect to see honor, courage and commitment.”
And, he tells the group, they are also expected to wake-up at 5 a.m. the next morning.
The drill sergeants return the next day, the same men and women the candidates met on their arrival, but in very different roles. Still in scrubs, they don’t bark now. They have gone into “mentor mode,” as Flynn called it last night. They explain and encourage. They speak softly and joke, explaining the necessity of harshness, of creating what they call a system of progressive failure. At training there’s always a good sergeant, a bad sergeant, they explain, and a platoon commander who’s a father figure.
After breakfast, the candidates divide into several groups, each with a Marine guide, and take a tour of the OCS grounds. Captain Larry Colby, a congenial blonde helicopter pilot and academics officer for OCS, leads a group of four students through the Combat Course, a long sequence of stations designed to simulate various conditions of combat. Set in the woods about a quarter mile from the barracks, the course includes places where candidates shimmy over a gorge on a rope, cross another gorge on a bridge made of two hawsers and a steel cable, burrow through a muddy passage, and swim through a muddy pond with obstacles in it.
The once-clean business students now show little scruple about jumping into frigid water, nor about burrowing through muddy defiles among concrete blocks. They emerge cold, muddy, and wet.
Useem was pleased with his students’ hardiness. “They became aggressive in helping one another,” he says, days after arriving home. “And that will be an important lesson to take back to their jobs when they leave Wharton.”
“You’ve got to immerse yourself in real decision making and tough challenges to build confidence in your own leadership. When we began that morning it was very early and very cold. One of the stations involved dropping into a trough of water on your stomach and pulling yourself on the elbows. There we are with water up to our ears and it’s dark and cold and dank. We’re in a swamp and you can smell the methane. Yet everybody dove into the trough and there was no complaint from anybody. I think our students learned that they can face an intense physical challenge and emerge from it undaunted. They also learned that their own goals had not been achieved until everybody on their combat team had survived every station on the course. They pushed themselves to their physical limits, they surmounted every barrier thrown at them, and they will never forget that their personal determination and team camaraderie were what made the difference.”
Late in the afternoon, the candidates set out for what the marines call the Leadership Reaction Course, a series of about 20 stations that include wooden platforms bordering a small tank of water, a wooden ladder on the platform, a length of rope, and a three-foot metal pipe. The purpose of the course, Colby says, is to let candidates show how bravely they can fail. Each station requires both physical and mental effort.
When the group of candidates guided by First Sergeant Brian Vreeland enters station one, they see an open area bounded on three sides by a cinder-block wall. The scenario: they are in a prison camp and must get out, but many not touch any red surfaces. Nor can they fall into the water, which is electrified. Somehow they must cross the water, land on a two-foot wide white surface at the far end of the tank, then scale one of the block walls, all without touching any red surface.
But red surfaces are everywhere.
There’s a correct process for this task, all the Marines agree. But almost no one can immediately see it. Vreeland checks his watch and tells the group to begin. Immediately, they extend the ladder from the wooden platform across the water to the far end of the tank. Three students stand on one end of the ladder while the lightest ventures across it toward the other side. But she can’t get near enough. Every time she approaches the far shore, her ladder teeters and she dips closer to the water surface.
Fifty feet away, at station five, candidates Jean Huang, Ali Syed, Rafael Samuel-Lajeunesse and Tom Bevan are struggling with another problem. Using various lengths of board, they must cross a body of water while carrying a large box of medical supplies. Upright stanchions rise from the water at regular intervals, some that they can put boards across, and others that they cannot.
After many futile minutes inching over unsteady boards and laying the boards over new uprights further on, time has run out. But the team won’t give up, and Colby is pleased with their effort. “The trick is not to solve the problem, but to organize and address it as a well-functioning team,” says Colby. “And in every team, the leadership dynamic will be different.”
Once out of the candidates’ earshot, Colby explains that the first leader in most teams usually employs a direct-command style of leadership. He or she issues orders and expects quick compliance. When this method fails, a second, more interactive sort of leader comes to the fore. This person communicates ideas more fully and carefully, and directs more deftly. Meanwhile, instructors observe from the catwalk above, looking for confidence, communication skills, initiative and circumspection.
“What they really look for,” Colby says, “is someone who trusts the team and who earns their trust, but who can effectively motivate them. In some people it takes a long time for these qualities to become visible. That’s all right. They get many chances.” Marines emphasize the need to allow room for failure, a theme at variance with the success-at- any-cost rhetoric of many boardrooms.
Twenty feet away at station three another group focuses on how to cross a small body of water using only a rope, a board and two big, empty drums. The team decides to lash the drums together and float one candidate across at a time, using the board as a guide.
Candidate Heather Thorne is the first to give it a shot. Balanced carefully on the tied drums, she pushes off across the water toward the far bank. But almost instantly, the drums become unstable beneath her. Catching on two parallel poles crossing the water, she abandons the drums, goes in below the waist, and slowly, painfully pulls herself up onto the poles. She considers jumping to the far bank and safety, but stays where she is to help the others get across. Sergeant Vreeland looks at his watch. After several problems of this kind, the group is beginning to work together.
“This experiment taught me an amazing amount of respect for the Marine Corps and their style of teaching teamwork,” Thorne says. “In school, our teaching style is more theoretical. Maybe it’s good once in a while to go out and do something rather than sit in a classroom.”
A coaching session followed each Leadership Reaction Station. “The feedback was so finely honed that there was no room to counterpoint,” says Useem. “There was none of that defensive posturing that’s sometimes apparent in the classroom.”
After the LRC, the students head back to the barracks for another change of clothes. “They did surprisingly well,” says Colby. “The real officer candidates are in much better physical shape when they get here. But these young men and women largely supplied that lack with brainpower.”
Generally, the students are exhausted but happy, ready to dine on gourmet food at the officers’ club.
“I think we came to realize that you really need the team,” says Rafael Samuel-Lajeunesse. “I can see now why there is such an emphasis on working together and communicating effectively.”
Another key lesson learned, Useem says, is that mistakes are a teaching tool. “If you have positive feedback, you can come back from a failure and learn about yourself. During the Leadership Reaction Course, the instructors would step forward to critique them. I’ve never seen so many wide eyes as the students learned both the mistakes that they made as well as some of the achievements. One team leader was told, for instance, that he had failed to clearly articulate his instructions; another was told she had strayed too far forward to effectively guide her team. They probably appreciated more than ever before that mastering leadership is a matter of acting and then learning from your mistakes.
“At Quantico, the Marine instructors told the students exactly what problems they were expected to solve. In the business world, however, our graduates won’t have the problems laid out quite so neatly for them. But the more they can experience what lies in their futures, the better prepared they will be to lead in the very demanding markets they are sure to face after graduation. With the acquisitions, mergers, restructurings, and change initiatives they are sure to face ahead, they’ll likely look back one day and say, ‘It can’t be as bad as the Quantico course.’”