or a college student, the phrase “leadership experience” might stir up visuals of sitting in a conference center, listening to lectures, and doing group breakouts. Whatever one envisions, it’s likely far from traveling 7,274 miles to climb a mountain at the peak of the country’s rainy season alongside nine equally inexperienced peers. But for students in Boston College’s Leadership in Action: Lessons From Exploration course, this is exactly what their experience entails.
The three-credit class was offered for the first time last year, and is co-taught by Carroll School of Management (CSOM) professors Lyndon Garrett and Juan Montes. The program’s inaugural trip brought a team of 10 students along with the two faculty to Tanzania for 15 days, aiming to authentically teach leadership to students by having them undergo mentally and physically challenging experiences as a team. Despite having two CSOM faculty members at the helm, the course uses a multi-faceted, liberal arts-based approach to prepare students to soak in the diverse and unfamiliar learnings they’d experience.
After meeting every other Wednesday night over the spring semester, the group departed on June 14, just weeks after the conclusion of the academic year. Their trip began with the ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, before traveling west to the Serengeti National Park and then visiting three different indigenous tribes.
The course’s unconventional approach to teaching leadership was shaped by each professor’s belief in the power of unfamiliar experiences. Modeled after leadership-in-action trips led by University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, the Tanzania trip sought to make students better leaders through authentic experiences rather than classroom teaching.
“We said, in this department, we teach leadership, we teach OB [organizational behavior], we teach strategy; but the most deep experience when you are in college is when you do a journey, a trip, to a place you don’t know anything about,” Montes said.
Montes came up with the idea for the course upon noticing the lack of leadership trips offered by CSOM faculty. Though abroad opportunities are commonplace at BC, he also recognized an absence of experiences centered around physical challenge.
Growing up in Chile, Montes developed a fascination with mountains, leading him to become a professional mountain climber. He was part of the first Chilean team to summit Mount Everest and returned in 1992 to do a second ascent of Mount Everest’s remote Kangshung Face, which hasn’t been repeated in 26 years. Since, he has guided over 30 expeditions to the Himalayas, Andes, Patagonia, Yosemite, and the Alps.
Combining his background in mountaineering with his years teaching operational behavior and strategy implementation, Montes wanted to create a trip pushing students both physically and intellectually through foreign experience. Tanzania’s physical terrain and cultural diversity provided an ideal location for this intense experience. Though places like the Alps have plenty of challenging and beautiful climbs that he considered, they lacked the unfamiliarity that cultivates intellectual growth, Montes said.
He then proposed his idea for the Tanzania trip to Dean of CSOM Andrew Boynton.
“The first time I went to talk to Andy Boynton, he said, ‘Oh, that’s totally crazy. Are you sure you want to do that? It’s difficult and kind of risky,’” Montes said. “I said no, it’s not risky, but yes, it is difficult—you have to arrange the resources.”
Even after Boynton’s initial hesitation, Montes believed the course could be approved if he continued to plan it. In 2018, he traveled alone to Tanzania to explore if each pillar of the course—climbing the mountain, doing the safari, and visiting the tribes—would be possible. Establishing communication with local tribes took up the majority of his trip, Montes said, as they were difficult to reach.
With the outline of the course and trip more solidified, Montes then presented the idea to Garrett to see if he’d be interested.
“I got excited because I’ve also done a certain amount of mountaineering—though not nearly as much as Juan—so I kind of just jumped on board,” Garrett, who is from Utah, said. “I grew up climbing mountains, but not really tall ones like Juan.”
The duo’s interests in the outdoors aligned, but they wanted the trip to be accessible to any student who was excited about the opportunity, regardless of if they considered themselves to be adept in the wilderness.
“We don’t ask for any previous mountaineering experience, just a love for the outdoors and a willingness to accept some kind of physical punishment in climbing the mountain, but not a lot,” Montes said.
While the group ranged in familiarity with the wilderness, most members had very limited previous experience, which was integral to cultivate a supportive group atmosphere, said trip member Amy Donahue, Lynch ʼ20.
The students did limited physical training prior to the trip, going to a spin class and doing a challenging hour-long hill run, but Montes and Garrett were more focused on establishing an intellectual base for the experience.
Though advertised to those in CSOM or students from other schools minoring in Management and Leadership, the course was fundamentally liberal arts, Montes said, with readings covering topics ranging from science to philosophy to evolutionary theory.
The course material is diverse and aims to prepare students for the unfamiliarity they would experience on the trip. Isak Dineson’s Out of Africa offered insight into cultural experiences in Africa while Robert McFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind explored why people climb mountains. Montes, who as a teenager experienced pushback from family members about his love for mountain climbing emphasizes the importance of understanding all the aspects of the sport. When he began his mountain-climbing hobby at age 15, his own parents were skeptical.
“People say, ‘Why? It’s dumb, it’s totally stupid, it’s a cold place that requires a lot of effort,’” he said. “I remember my mother asking this, but it’s an objective that was initially dumb and separated, but then you begin to fall in love with the objective, and … also the elements of mystery and uncertainty and risk.”
Exploring the power of storytelling was also a key component of the trip, which the course’s discussion-based setup aimed to strengthen. The small size fostered more authentic conversations than possible in a larger lecture-style course, for example.
“Our class definitely got pretty personal,” said William Kastrol, MCAS ʼ21. “It was definitely my first class at BC where I knew everybody by name and could tell you something meaningful about them.”
The unique environment also allowed students to build deeper relationships with the two professors than would be possible in a typical classroom setting. For Donahue, this meant discovering that her interests aligned with Garrett’s research on team dynamics, which she is now helping him conduct.
After finalizing their plane tickets just 10 days earlier, the group set off to Arusha, Tanzania via New York City just days after the conclusion of the spring semester. The second day, they embarked on the first leg of their trip—climbing Kilimanjaro.
Over the first five days, the group experienced four of Kilimanjaro’s five terrains as they climbed toward the base camp. The time spent hiking each day averaged from six to eight hours, which group members usually passed through storytelling to occupy their minds.
“I started asking people a question of the day as we hiked. Some were about what people were afraid of or believed in,” Donahue said.
Isolation from the outside world was necessary to cultivate the unconventional experience the trip was designated to provide, Montes said. However, reflection and discussion about this unfamiliarity wasn’t planned during the trip. Instead, it arose naturally.
“The context, the environment you are in creates that reflection,” Montes said. “You need to create that when you’re in a hotel type of retreat. When you are in the mountains, meetings occur around the table. I have been in many, many expeditions, and that’s the same. All the important meetings are when you are having lunch, or dinner, or breakfast.”
Because the trip took place in early June, the members found themselves caught in the tailend of Tanzania’s rainy season, which typically lasts from April to May. This created an unusually remote feeling. The group only encountered three or four other people during their week-long climb, Donahue said.
Hiking in constant rain also posed cognitive obstacles. Though some preferred the distraction from the physical monotony of the climb that it created, the non-stop downpour added to the mental challenge.
“We were looking around at each other while we were climbing this mountain and just getting dumped on, thinking ‘What are we doing? This is crazy,’” Garrett said. “People have done physically hard things before, but trudging through pouring rain with a team and no cell phone was so out of our comfort zones in so many ways that was a big part of what made the experience so foreign and unusual.”
The climb culminated on the sixth day, when the group set out at 11 p.m. to begin their climb to the summit.
“It’s just not thinking about anything besides ‘breathe, step, breathe, step,’ so it was very quiet,” Garrett said. “There was no more joking around or telling stories, you just breathe and walk very slowly.”
The guides intentionally set an extremely slow pace for the last leg of the trek, which was necessary to ensure everyone made it to the top in the steep, oxygen-scarce conditions. Some students had slept for a few hours prior to setting out, but others were running on no sleep for the 14-hour day. The combination of sleep deprivation and over 19,000 feet of elevation even led some to experience hallucinations during the night.
“My sister was talking to her food at one point. I just saw little animals go by, and I was like, ‘There’s definitely not an animal in front of me,’” Kastroll said of his sister, Abby, who was also on the trip.
Donning headlamps, the 10 students and two faculty inched forward, having to break into smaller groups as some lagged behind and others sped up. The first group reached the top at 7 a.m., just as the sun broke through. They tried waiting for everyone to arrive but began feeling the effects that come with a lack of oxygen. As a result, by the time the last group emerged, the first members had already begun the descent. Each trip member made it in the end, though, fulfilling the course’s goal.
“Everybody made it, and even the people at the fittest end of the continuum suffered, as well as those who barely touch the gym, so it’s quite democratic in suffering for everybody,” Montes said.
The physical and mental challenges created by Kilimanjaro were largely overcome through the team’s collaborative rather than competitive dynamic. Since each member experienced hardships to some extent, everyone understood the power in group motivation. Kastroll recalled a day when Abby felt above average and spent nearly an hour running up and down a tough ascent to motivate those lagging behind.
“In a group, you push yourself because you see that other people are suffering, and if others can do it, you think you can do it too,” Garrett said. “That’s what I like about the team not being a team of mountaineers or being a mountaineering expedition because when you assume that the other guy is an expert, the dynamic is totally different.”
For some, the climb fostered growth in areas beyond leadership. The disconnection from the outside world that began during the Kilimanjaro leg of the trip and continued throughout gave students time to reflect that they wouldn’t have during everyday life. Kastroll decided to dedicate his climb to something higher, which for him was faith.
“Whether people were religious or not, I felt like everyone developed a deeper understanding of what happened and a more profound understanding of nature,” Kastroll said.
Montes also emphasized the trip’s potential to help students see mind-body connection in a different light than the one cultivated by Western society. Stripped of so much daily commotion and forced to focus on a monotonous task such as walking helped group members not only see the capacity of their physical bodies, but also increase awareness of one’s own body while on the mountain.
“Here, life is more simple, but it’s more cruel,” Montes said. “You need to walk, you need to do one thing during the day, and that focus on things that are very simple creates a totally different mindset.”
The intense physical and mental challenge posed by Kilimanjaro was immediately followed by two days on a safari in Serengeti National Park. Despite the relaxed atmosphere, intellectual growth was still fostered by the conversations students had with the safari drivers.
“You also talk about where your family lives, what tribe you’re from, what dialect you speak,” Montes said. “Also, they would ask us a lot of things about what university is like, or what studying is because they’ve never experienced it beyond a little schooling.”
The last leg of the trip, visiting three indigenous tribes for a day each, brought a new type of unfamiliarity to light. One morning was spent with the Hatsa, Africa’s last hunter-gatherer tribe. The group arrived to the tribe sharpening their arrows and joined them for their morning hunt, which included shooting birds and gathering honey.
“One of them climbed a tree where there was a beehive and was reaching in and scooping out honey while bees were flying everywhere,” Garrett said.
The opportunity to engage and share stories with individuals holding such different experiences couldn’t have been accomplished in many locations that they considered for their adventure, such as the Alps, Montes said.
“I remember a group of women we met on the last trip asked everybody in the group, ‘Okay, how many kids do you have?’ and were surprised when nobody was married, and the girl who was asking was probably 17 or 18,” Montes said. “The opportunity to establish and enrich that conversation shaped our discussions.”
Tanzania’s culmination of physical challenge and culturally diverse experiences supported the trip’s purpose and made Montes and Garrett eager to continue providing similar experiences. This upcoming year, they have given applicants the option to choose their preference between returning to Tanzania and going to the Atacama Desert in Chile, where the 15 days will include climbing a volcano, meeting local tribes, and potentially rock climbing or mountain biking.
The personal growth and leadership development that students extracted through the spring semester course and 15-day trip showed the potential for unconventional trips to provide the most meaningful experiences.
“Students would talk about how they had learned all of these different things in all of their CSOM classes, but going on a trip like this really brought everything to life,” Garrett said. “Now they understand what it means to lead and be part of a team. It showed that we achieved the goals of the class—without ever really talking about leadership, we saw students becoming more leader-like.”
NOTE: Although this course is being offered in the summer 2020 session, the deadline to apply has already passed. If you are interested, however, you can still reach out to Juan Montes at [email protected] to be placed on the waitlist.
Photos Courtesy of Juan Montes