Staring up at the frosty peaks of the world’s highest mountain, management professor Scott DeRue was about to embark on his most challenging climb yet. Mount Everest soars 8,848 meters above sea level and packs a one, two punch of Khumbu Icefall and exposed faces that can cause even the most experienced climber to make fatal mistakes.
This two-month journey that began last March would test his physical strength, mental toughness, focus and every lesson he teaches his MBA students during the Everest simulation in the course “Leading People and Organizations” at the University of Michigan’s Ross School.
He has been teaching the simulation since 2009 but nothing could have fully prepared the 36-year-old business school professor for the real thing (see Business Lessons From Mount Everest).
In the nine months leading up to the riskiest climb of his life, DeRue completed a rigorous training program, devoting four to five days of creating his own Everest simulation. DeRue climbed with dumbbells in his pack up to three hours per day and lifted weights two times a week. He notes that his dedication to training is similar to the vitality that students must have to withstand the pressures of business school.
“To get the most out of business school, you must have an unwavering commitment to your goals, work effectively in teams, and be willing to take risks and put yourself in stretch situations. The same is true with mountaineering.”
However, in DeRue’s case, his commitment to his training couldn’t protect him from Everest’s relentless effects. He lost 15 pounds while eating a whopping 5,000 to 6,0000 calories per day and experienced minor symptoms associated with altitude sickness including lack of appetite, headaches and oxygen loss. Although that paled in comparison to his three team members who suffered severe respiratory infections and had to return home.
“Your body is working really hard to sustain life at those altitudes,” DeRue says.
Nearly 300 people have died attempting to climb mount Everest
But DeRue says he was always perfectly aware of these physical risks that are involved with climbing Everest. It is widely reported that nearly 300 people have died attempting the climb of their lives and half of them have never been recovered. But he argues that you can’t focus on the uncontrollable elements that Everest might thrust upon you. Both DeRue and his fiancé Kathy tried to block out the potential dangers and put their trust in the months of preparation DeRue did before the climb.
“There are always uncontrollable risks — other climbers, the Khumbu Icefall, and hazards that are largely outside of your control,” he says. “But you cannot control them so there’s no need to focus on them. My focus was doing what I needed to do every single day to be healthy and safe.”
DeRue came face to face with these uncontrollable elements when he witnessed a team member plunge nearly 100 feet down an icy slope on the steepest part of the mountain — losing a crucial part of his boot known as a crampon. DeRue’s team was forced to collectively mobilize down the dangerous path to help him put his crampon back on so that he could continue the climb. DeRue attributes their success to the months of team development they completed before the summit on May 18th where the wind chill was a negative 50 degrees.
Before DeRue participated on high-performing teams as a mountain climber, he was learning about leadership and team development at his job as a management consultant for Monitor Group. DeRue, who joined the firm after graduating with his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, says the experience gave him a front row seat to a variety of leadership techniques.
“ … At Monitor, I witnessed the full spectrum of effective and ineffective leadership,” DeRue says. “I also saw just how important leadership was to building high-performing teams, fostering trust in our teams and with our clients, and ultimately to making a positive impact on our clients.”
A desire to share knowledge and invest in the development of others
These experiences fueled a desire to pursue a career in which DeRue was able to share his knowledge with other potential leaders and invest in their development.
“I wanted to help people who were great individual contributors become great leaders, and therefore indirectly have my own positive impact on business and society,” DeRue says. “Becoming a professor where I could work with talented people interested in business was my path for doing that.”
Instead of heading for an MBA after his four-year stint at Monitor, DeRue headed off to Michigan State University in 2003 for a PhD in business administration. Four years later, he was standing in front of a classroom teaching at the University of Michigan’s Ross School. Quickly after receiving his PhD and starting his new job, DeRue was already looking for another challenge to tackle: mountain climbing.
Setting Everest goals to learn more about yourself and your character
“I love to set what I call Everest goals and commit to them,” DeRue says. “I think you learn a lot about yourself, your own character, your own flaws and strengths when you put yourself into those situations. So that’s one way I grow as an individual.”
Each mountain DeRue climbs serves as a “laboratory” for learning new parallels he observes between climbing and business school. He says climbing is a time of profound self-reflection, but it also teaches him new lessons he can share with his class of MBA students.
“Mountaineering is my vehicle for taking the time to reflect and develop a greater understanding of myself,” DeRue says. “Applying to business school requires you do the same. You need to be clear about why business school is the right choice for you — not just the path that others expect you to take. You also have to be clear about why you are a good fit for business school. That requires a great deal of reflection and self-understanding.”
Bringing lessons from the climb back into the classroom
But Derue notes that nothing has taught him more than summiting Mount Everest. Even though DeRue boasts an impressive climbing resume that includes such conquests as Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Aconcagua and Mount McKinley, those climbs only served as a small portion of what readied him for Everest and the surprising lessons he would take back to his classroom.
Now DeRue hopes he can use this “lived experience” to lead his MBA students more effectively during the Everest simulation he has taught since 2009. The course forces students to face the same team challenges DeRue tackled while climbing the highest mountain on earth. The simulation starts by breaking the class into teams of five, with each team member assuming a role that they are required to play throughout the climb. The roles are incredibly specific, down to the motivation each person has for attempting the summit. Then, students must complete the climb in five stages and in only two hours
MBA candidates walk away from the simulation with mixed responses. While some teams work well together and complete the summit, other groups fail, sometimes never getting close to the top. No matter the results, all students share an experience that stimulates a lengthy debrief on how to lead high performing teams where students critique their performances and look at empirical data gathered during the experiment. During the discussion a well-known mountaineer also is brought in to discuss what it’s like to lead successful teams.
Character flaws revealed in the Everest simulation
DeRue’s colleague, Maxim Sytch, co-teaches the leadership course and says that the Everest simulation helps internalize valuable lessons that typical classroom discussions do not. The simulation also points out some potential character flaws that students might have in a high-stakes environment.
“I think that it’s a great learning experience, the fact that we actually have a distribution of outcomes,” Sytch says. “In fact, I’d rather them reflect on this now than to fail with a team on their first group assignment at a real job. I think the other part that I find interesting is that they’re amazed as to how in the simulated environment, where there are no tangible incentives like bonuses, salaries, promotions, or taking care of families or livelihoods, that we still find that people behave in very different ways that sometimes aren’t in the best interest of the group.”
And DeRue hopes to combat this issue that many of the student teams face by putting more emphasis on team development because he notes it as one of the most important lessons he took away from the Everest experience.
“Something that really touched me is how as a leader do we prepare them for high-stakes, high-risk environments,” DeRue says. “We talk a lot in my world about when you’re in that moment how do you lead your team effectively. But what we haven’t talked about as much is how do you ready the team so that when that moment happens that team is going to be successful. Watching our guides do that by building our confidence in our skills and enabling these trusting relationships to develop was a big eye opener for me.”
He also found that the resiliency it took for him to push through on days when his body was numb and exhausted is a crucial quality he wants to instill in his MBA students.
“Facing those unknowns, those risks, and the change that’s required for organizations to thrive today requires a great deal of resiliency on the part of the people trying to lead their organizations through change or risky environments,” he says. “And it requires a great deal of focus and mental toughness. So we need to be able to equip our students with those same character traits.”
But no matter what DeRue’s students walk away with after the Everest simulation, he hopes that the course inspires them to set their own personal “Everest goals.”
“In order for business to be that positive force for good and positive change, it requires that our leaders set inspirational goals and not allow mediocrity or average to be good enough,” DeRue says. “We need excellence. And the only way to get there is to set Everest goals and commit to them and push ourselves to reach them. Otherwise we’re just going to continue the status quo, which just isn’t good enough.”