Cold, Tired and Hungry: A Tribute to Wharton Leadership Ventures

JenniferI have a confession: I’m a Leadership Venture junkie.

It all started with Cotopaxi in January 2012, during my first year at Wharton. Towards the end of that school year, as I became a freshly minted Venture Fellow, I sat in a Huntsman classroom listening to outgoing VFs rattle off their prior expeditions and wondering how I, too, could amass such a collection. Since then, I racked up a few more ventures: Kilimanjaro, FDNY, Quantico, and most recently, Atacama, which was my yearlong labor of love as a VF. The leadership program at Wharton fundamentally shaped who I am, and the Venture program in particular was bar none the best activity I pursued over the past two years. So before I reenter the real world, I feel it prescient to pay tribute to the program and share some of my reflections.

The first page of our Atacama Handbook contained a personal note from Joe and me. It said, “It is not every day that we are able to truly extract ourselves and focus on ourselves and our surroundings, free of distractions, untethered from our smartphones and deprived of conveniences we take for granted. This is a unique and special environment and we hope you will learn something from being in it.” I wrote that a couple of months ago, and it is something that I believe makes this program extraordinary.  The mission of Wharton Leadership Ventures is to develop leaders who excel in stressful and ambiguous environments. To really understand what that means, you need to remove yourself from Huntsman Hall and wind up in a beautiful oasis in the middle of nowhere. Or perhaps in a swamp, toting a fake gun and crawling on your elbows as you dodge barbed wire in snake-infested waters. Through my experiences, regardless of whether I was on a weeklong international expedition or a shorter immersion on US soil, I learned something new on each venture. All told, I emerged with profound lessons and meaningful relationships that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Cotopaxi was more than just ice axes, crampons, and a white out on summit day.
I gained a new level of self-awareness, recognizing that I sometimes assume a slightly intimidating leadership persona when thrust into positions of authority, and I also realized the power of owning and investigating my emotions when providing feedback to others and when taking stock of my own abilities. Kilimanjaro brought a whole new meaning to “team over self” and an acute example of Chris Warner’s wise words that you can “make the peak but miss the point.” It took a harrowing debrief on Summit Day for our team to realize some of our missteps as we ascended the highest peak in Africa, but we all grew to be better people because of it. I also came away from that expedition with a newfound respect for showering and a memory of the best tasting energy bar I have ever consumed, hand fed to me at a moment of weakness after I made the poor decision to carry far too much water weight up the mountain and my face turned a ghastly shade of white, which was not on account of albino baby sunscreen.

While more compact in timing, the day long experiences at FDNY and Quantico left a lasting impression as well. With both of these, I gained an even greater respect for the very critical and difficult work that the men and women in these organizations do. Fighting fires and protecting our nation are both tasks that require a great deal of training, stamina, and courage. During the “evolutions” – short training scenarios – that we completed at the FDNY, I came to really appreciate the value of specialization and specific protocols. In other words, having a method to control the madness of traumatic and chaotic situations is of utmost importance to mission critical teams. It also takes a lot of strength – mental and physical – to do these jobs. I barely made it through the confined space of a small, dark tunnel without hyperventilating, but to go into unchartered territory, navigating through smoke and obstacles all while keeping the broader mission in mind – that is another thing entirely. Quantico, too, underscored these principles while also exposing us to a diverse array of scenarios and leadership styles that collectively promoted a versatile approach to problem solving and the ability to operate in uncertain and risky environments with sound judgment and coordination among teammates.

And then there’s Atacama, which I hold near and dear in part because I spent the better part of my second year at Wharton learning about 24 of my classmates, corralling them to complete medical forms, assuring them that it would in fact be cold in the desert, and ultimately, hoping to help them have one of most meaningful and transformative journeys they would experience at Wharton. Serving as a Venture Fellow was a privilege and an honor: to be a facilitator and coach among peers is truly humbling, but it’s also a lot of fun. As a participant, I was so caught up in the experience itself that it was sometimes difficult to extricate myself from my team and my own behaviors to deeply appreciate and understand the broader context in which we operated. But as a Venture Fellow, I was able to be an astute observer, meandering from the front to back of the pack, capturing moments of decision and indecision, of conflict and unity. I could interject with questions or help set the precedent for the value of a difficult conversation. From this perspective, it was an entirely new and wonderful learning experience for me.

The Atacama venture is unique in that it offers a multi-sport adventure: trekking, rock climbing, canyoning, mountain biking, and mountaineering through the driest desert in the world.
As such, individuals and teams are tested in a variety of circumstances, each commanding a different approach: protocols, preparation, and clear communication to reach the summit, coaching and support to bolster teammates ascending the rock wall, and decisiveness to ford the cold, wide river for the very first time. I was impressed with the mettle and cohesiveness of each team, which strengthened as they took on each new activity. Seeing this in action made me realize how incredibly valuable it is to expose teams in the real world to a host of different scenarios, as this builds strength, unity, and versatility. Each activity introduces a fresh challenge and offers another opportunity for teammates to learn about each other, as someone’s strength in one activity could be a liability in another. Different circumstances give everyone an opportunity to shine and to make and learn from mistakes. Rock climbing in particular also gave me some perspective, literally. Other people can often see things that you cannot – like handholds and footholds – and likewise, sometimes you see things up close that those from a distance would miss. Having a more holistic view of any situation is exceedingly helpful. And from a risk-taking perspective, it’s a lot easier to take the plunge into something new and uncertain when you have the backing of a strong support net. This may seem simple, but in practice I take it to mean that a strong culture breeds healthy experimentation and risk-taking, which are essential to the growth and advancement of people and organizations.

So, what do I have to show from 2 years in the venture program? A foray into South America, the largest REI dividends I have ever accrued, thousands of breathtaking photos, some interesting nicknames, a love of Gore-Tex, and an unexpected liking for instant soup, to name a few. But aside from all that, I have memories that I will cherish forever and experiences that have made me a more resilient, self-aware, and dynamic leader.

I’m grateful to so many people for making the Leadership Ventures program possible: to Preston for his dedication to making this program the best it can possibly be and for his unwavering belief that we are all exceptional, to Sarah for her unbelievable responsiveness and support throughout the year, to the Venture Fellows community for being the most incredible group of people I met at Wharton, to the many guides I met and worked with who are so humble about their accomplishments and who possess a passion for learning in the outdoors that can inspire all of us to greatness, and of course to my classmates – fellow participants – who helped me learn from my mistakes and understand leadership, teamwork, and myself from so many different and wonderful perspectives. All told, I’ve taken a giant step forward in recognizing and realizing my own potential.

When I signed up for Cotopaxi, I knew it wasn’t going to be a typical holiday. There were moments of discomfort in each of these experiences – numb fingers and toes, difficult personalities, constricting oxygen masks, heavy gear, utter fatigue, awkward silences – but the nexus of that stress, ambiguity and challenge creates experiences where we learn the best and learn the most. These conditions, in conjunction with the vacuum-like setting enabled by extreme environments, make Ventures the best that experiential leadership has to offer. Ultimately, we should all be cold, tired, and hungry once in a while. If you need some help with that, sign up for a Venture. I assure you that you’ll be glad you did.