Dec. 12, 2017

Scaling Mt. Everest: Resilience as a Team Exercise

Students in Batten’s new “Resilient Leadership for Teams and Teammates” course this fall learned about resilience from the top: President Teresa Sullivan addressed the class in a guest lecture. 

“Being resilient means more than simply enduring or persevering. It means more than surviving in the face of challenges; it means thriving in the face of challenges,” President Sullivan said in an e-mail about her presentation to students.

President Sullivan (photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

For President Sullivan, “resilience is an essential element of leadership, and it’s a critical skill for students to develop at UVA. In my remarks, I talked about different leadership styles, principles of effective leadership, and some of the defining qualities of resilient leadership.”

That goal of leading amid challenge underscores part of the reason Batten teamed up with Tim Davis, Executive Director for Resilience & Leadership Development at UVA, to offer the University’s inaugural course in resilience. A spring version of the class, equally popular, has a waiting list of more than 30 students.

“We can help young leaders develop the emotional skills and the mental stamina for leadership, probably the most necessary condition for being an effective leader,” said Davis, who previously served as the Director of UVA’s Center for Counseling & Psychological Services.

“This has been a totally new endeavor. It has been a class that I have wanted to teach for so long, which is why I’m so appreciative of (Batten Dean) Allan Stam and Batten’s support for this idea.

“At UVA, we develop global citizen leaders. We are using more of our time and attention to help students in the middle of the curve develop into their full potential as young leaders.”

Stam emphasized that a goal of the course is to help students understand their capabilities.

“If a student has arrived here, they have the capacity to be successful. A course like this provides an opportunity for the students that aren’t going to end up in specific leadership roles with skills, self-awareness and understanding of the things they need to reach their full potential.”

But, Stam said, “we’re seeing a decline in resilience amongst young people today. This is a national phenomenon, and we’re seeing it at UVA as well.

“In the general student body, lots of students struggle with very high expectations: both personal, as well as family and societal.”

Working through those struggles requires effective teamwork, an idea addressed in Davis’ new course. Real-world simulations provided by Batten’s Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming are incorporated into the course load to create an experiential learning environment in which students must surmount obstacles together while also drawing on unique individual strengths. In one exercise, students in teams of five have to ascend Mt. Everest, using laptops to navigate their way to the summit as they contend with the distinctive abilities of the disparate team members.

“While they’re doing this, they’re experiencing a lot of the dysfunctions that happen in teams, and so instead of listening to me talk about it—and I talk about it, too, that’s important, to set the frame—but they get to experience it, what we call ‘mixed motive situations,’” Davis said.

“They don’t know it, but every one of them actually has a different goal for that experience, and most of the goals don’t involve reaching summit.”

Data help drive the discussions about the effectiveness of the groups. “We look at the statistics for each team, percent of individual (involvement)…Everything’s quantified as they’re making all these decisions,” Davis said.

Mt. Everest simulation, from Harvard Business Publishing

“So what do you do with that information? Do you share it, or do you not? How does it affect your behaviors? How does it affect the team goals relative to the individual goals? And they get to live it out, real time.”

Nicole Reeves, a second-year student from Fredericksburg, said, “The most valuable lesson we learn in the course is teamwork. This applies to leadership, resiliency, and individual accomplishments. Without a cohesive team, goals can not be determined or achieved.”

Students in the Mt. Everest simulation, clockwise from far left: Shannon Khurana, Sela Carrington, Nikki Reeves, Zach Taylor, and Vaibhav Mehta.

Sullivan cited the importance of teamwork in fulfilling UVA’s mission. “Because of the commitment of faculty, students, staff, the Board of Visitors, and others, we have achieved a great deal through implementation of (UVA’s comprehensive) Cornerstone Plan over the last five years, and we’ve achieved these things while contending with numerous challenges.

“If we had been content with merely enduring or persevering in a challenging environment, we would never have achieved so much together.”

Stam said resiliency questions have become part of the larger conversation at universities, some of which have begun applying a critical eye toward data from overall student performance.

“Are there critical indicators in high school transcripts, undergraduate transcripts, of people that can have a poor performance—one or two poor performances—and learn from those, verses people who have one or two poor performances and don’t adapt?” Stam asked.

And the course emphasizes the value of resiliency for everyone on the team, regardless of one’s role.

“There are types of quiet people who end up being very powerful leaders, often unwittingly,” Stam said. “And a lot of things that someone in this quiet role does generates or creates this respect has nothing to do with being the dominant person or the passive person or whatever. It’s how they carry themselves. It’s that they are persistent. They are resilient. They have a sense of humor. When other people are losing their heads, they’re calm. And so you can be a very quiet, role-model type leader.

“The irony is, very often the people in that role don’t actually care to be in it. But it’s not something they get to choose.”

That’s especially true for sports teams, and athletes make up about 20 percent of the course enrollment. That could be higher in the future, as Davis and Stam continue to reach out to UVA coaches to ask them to recommend students for the course.

But Reeves, who is not an athlete, also speaks for students who see the value of the course for all areas of their lives.

“I believe that this was by far my favorite class at UVA because not only was it fun and entertaining—and I looked forward to coming to class—but I feel as though this class has taught me skills that I will carry with me and apply to daily tasks for the rest of my life. This course helped me understand what resiliency is, and how I can improve my own resiliency and become a better leader.”

Another student, fourth-year Shannon Khurana, has found the course valuable in her leadership work with Queer Student Union and Nu Omega Iota sorority; she is president of both.

She also appreciated the opportunity to be a part of an eight-student evaluation team that reviewed the course with Davis.

“It’s been great to be a part of this course,” Khurana said. “It has helped me know how to improve academically, and to look for areas of opportunity and to plan for my future. A big part of the course is developing self-awareness, and being able to create the time to figure out what my strengths and preferences are.”

Khurana, from Winchester, has a strong interest in criminal justice issues and is applying to law schools. She is majoring in Philosophy and Cognitive Science.

“Being able to be a leader who can both make decisions about how to interpret and provide justice to communities, while also addressing the shortcomings and failures of the law in providing sufficient justice, is my personal goal. Having a strong background in how to be a leader will greatly complement the academic part of becoming a lawyer,” she said.

“I wouldn’t trade the experiences that I’ve had in this class for anything in the world,” said Sela Carrington, a first-year student from Leesburg. ”It’s easily one of my favorite classes that I’ve ever taken and will probably ever take at the university. We had so many amazing discussions, and Professor Davis taught me so many things about myself that I hadn’t know prior to taking the class.

“I believe that it should be included in the mandatory classes needed for graduation because as human beings we have to be able to bounce back from whatever we’re faced with…We will all have to lead some time in the future, and this class will prepare you for anything and everything.”

President Sullivan emphasized that “a resilient leader knows how to build trusting relationships, take bold risks, and be receptive to feedback—both positive and critical feedback. To lead a university effectively you need to have those qualities.”

The word “resilience” itself, “in its Latin origin, means to leap or spring back. Resilience means action,” Sullivan wrote, emphasizing the last word.

But “while bold action is part of leadership, sometimes resilient leadership requires a leader to choose not to act,” Sullivan wrote. She told students in the class of a famous letter of severe reprimand that President Lincoln wrote to one of his Civil War generals—but never sent.

“When Lincoln was done writing, he put it in an envelope, turned the envelope over, and wrote these words on the front: ‘To General George Meade, never sent, never signed.’

“Students in the class had been discussing the importance of emotional intelligence and how leaders need to remain composed under pressure. Lincoln’s decision not to send that letter required exactly those qualities—emotional intelligence, composure, and discipline under pressure—because he needed to preserve his working relationship with Meade.

“Having this ability to pause, to remain composed under pressure, instead of giving a knee-jerk reaction, is a critical part of effective leadership. Call it the power of the pause.”

Students in the Mt. Everest simulation, clockwise, from bottom left: Mike Degen, Helen Roddey, Megan Reid, Ryan Lamb, and Lauryn Shin

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