Activity: Searching the Past to Make a Difference in the Future


How Cornell’s Leadership Development Program Searches the Past to Inspire Students Today to Make a Difference in the Future

In the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management’s BOLD leadership program, we’ve been using The Five Practices of Exemplary Student Leadership® model and the Student Leadership Practices Inventory (Student LPI) since we accepted our first cohort of 20 business undergraduates in 2010. This past year, however, we developed a unique, one-year program in collaboration with Cornell Outdoor Education (COE), drawing parallels to the dramatic story of the leadership lessons of 19th Century Polar Explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Our program is built around three key concepts:
  1. We believe that leadership development is best retained through an experiential process.
  2. We use The Five Practices as our foundational model along with Kouzes and Posner’s definitions of leadership.
  3. We use the Shackleton story as a metaphor for the students’ journey in both leadership development[i] and in the context of 20th Century business[ii].

For us as leadership facilitators and for our students, the challenge is to continually examine Shackleton’s behaviors during his failed yet victorious expedition, and identify the ways in which he exhibited The Five Practices. It’s not that hard to do because The Five Practices and associated behaviors are easy to understand, easy to remember, and have stood the test of time.  (How did Shackleton know that Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner would someday develop a model around his own example of outstanding leadership!)

Because we work with business majors, our discussions focus on helping them connect the dots between the story, The Five Practices, and how they can apply this knowledge in their leadership roles on campus and, ultimately, in their careers.  In past years our program typically attracted about 38 applicants. But this year, several Cornell staff members decided to model behaviors for our students by collaborating to create a shared vision for this new leadership program. We were stunned to receive 66 applications with another 30 students expressing interest. Applicants submitted a resume and provided responses to a series of essay questions. A BOLD committee reviewed and accepted 30 applications in mid-September. Before the first workshop, participants were asked to write their Personal Best Leadership narrative and were trained in using an ePortfolio tool to track their progress, post assignments, and develop an About Me blog. 

Although it’s reputed as legend and not proven fact, we begin the program by reading the ad that Shackleton supposedly used to recruit the men of his doomed expedition. Then we tell our students they’ll be putting in 20-40 hours per semester, with no pay and few credits, but honor and recognition will be theirs upon completion of their journey.  Our Vision for this expedition to build their leadership capacity through self-development and mastery of self-awareness, building relationships based on trust and appreciation of differences, team bonding, practice, and making a difference toward their future success. 

We use a variety of workshops and tools, as well as a unique approach to conflict resolution.  Students uncover their potential and that of their team members through Gallup’s StrengthsQuest™, Myers Briggs Type Indicator®, The Medicine (or Leadership) Wheel[iii], Student Leadership Practices Inventory, Finding Your Flow, and Sustainable Leadership.  One of the most effective tools that deliver hands-on learning of the Practices is our intensive wilderness trip. Each group of 10 students is assigned a Practice and asked to take note when they themselves display that Practice or when they see others doing so. On a recent trip, students immediately were overheard talking about the Practices (without any facilitation). At one point, they were heard arguing about where to sleep for the night, and someone suggested that perhaps they were having problems because they didn’t first Inspire a Shared Vision to set a plan in place. Our Teaching Assistant continued to hear them congratulate each other on Challenging the Process or Encouraging The Heart!

So, here is how we navigate:

Fall Semester

  • Writing Personal Best narrative and reading the Shackleton story excerpt from Leading at the Edge.
  • The Journey Begins: Building the Team & Finding Your True North: Define leadership, introduce The Five Practices and the Student LPI, share Personal Best stories and identify Practices within each student’s story; Value Sort, teambuilding on low ropes course elements; and The Endurance movie. Students engage in a series of experiential indoor and outdoor ropes course activities focused on each of The Five Practices.
  • Enduring Leadership and The Pursuit of Virtue: Lecture by Dan Torpey, Ernst & Young Executive CPA, who has used the Shackleton story with his own executive leadership team. Our subsequent discussions examine ways that Mr. Torpey Challenged the Process or Encouraged the Heart in leading this teams.
  • Finding Your Flow Workshop: Developing the Mindset and Skills of a Champion Leader with Dr. Bruce H. Jackson of The Institute of Applied Human Excellence (http://www.theiahe.com). The workshop help students identify and repeat the behaviors they want to spend more time on to achieve their personal best performance. 
  • Navigating Through Treacherous Seas: Plotting Your Passage: Intensive Wilderness Backpacking Challenge in a Train-the-Trainer program (open to 10 students from the cohort).
  • StrengthsQuest™ Workshop: Students examine their own Signature Themes and that of their team members, discuss what they think Shackleton’s top Strengths would be, and have to “sell” themselves to their team members based on their Top 5 Themes.
  • Leadership Wheel Workshop: Cornell Outdoor Education delivers experiential exercises to help students understand their position on the Wheel, what gets them into trouble, and how to work more effectively with people who are different from them.  The students identify ways that Shackleton moved in every direction on the wheel as he moved from one Practice to another
  • Developing a Sustainable Crew (Part I): This workshop is conducted by the GIVE LEADERSHIP Institute and utilizes StrengthsQuest™ and Leadership Wheel assessments to help students begin to understand how to resolve conflict in the workplace. 
  • Student Leadership Practices Inventory (1st Assessment): Students complete the Student LPI: Self and also serve as Observers for three team members. Teaching Assistants and facilitators assess each student as Observers, too.
  • Students turn in a StrengthsQuest™ Orienteering narrative assignment: They are asked to form a fictional company and assign team members to lead various departments based on their identified strengths (e.g., Developing the Vision, Strategic Plan, Crisis Management, Customer Service). They are also asked to explain ways they will Model the Way, Challenge the Process at Cornell, Encourage the Heart of their team members, what it takes to create and Inspire a Shared Vision, and what it means to Enable Others to Act to build a culture of trust and cooperative relationships.
Spring Semester  
  • Coaching Session and Review of the student’s Student LPI results with program administrator.
  • Setting the Sights:  Review, regroup, and chart the course for Spring Semester through an interactive World Café format.
  • Dealing with Mutiny: Case study prep to learn how to resolve conflict with a heart of peace.
  • Developing a Sustainable Crew (Part II): More work on resolving conflict through role playing.
  • MBTI Workshop: Cornell Outdoor Education delivers this via an experiential method.
  • Green Business Lab: This is a capstone, 14-hour business simulation lab delivered by Realia Group, Inc. that focuses on business success with a triple bottom line of economic, social, and environmental responsibility.  Pre-assignments require about 2 hours of student prep.
  • Student LPI Assessment and Coaching: Program administrators use these one-on-one meetings to deliver the Student LPI Report, evaluate the student’s understanding of the results, discuss their engagement and performance, review their online ePortfolio and, most importantly, listen to their evaluations and suggestions for improvement on our programming.
  • Navigating Treacherous Seas: Plotting Your Passage (Part II): Train-the-Trainer Level Two Extreme Challenge Wilderness Backpacking Trip.
  • Celebrating the Triumph: High Ropes Course activities to point out and cement the learning of The Five Practices, Award Ceremony, Campfire Dinner. Certificates are granted and a BOLD LinkedIn lineage is created to network all of our Leadership Certificate Teams since 2010.

We were fortunate to have Dr. Posner speak at Cornell last April when we announced this program for the first time. Students engaged in a dramatic introduction that evening just prior to his presentation. We hope he enjoyed learning about a unique way that The Five Practices of Exemplary Student Leadership were going to be used to develop Cornell’s business leaders!  Because of our success and funding from the C. Charles Jackson Foundation, next year Cornell Outdoor Education will be rolling this same model out to all Cornell University students from every discipline.

Deborah Mann, Cornell University Leadership Program Administrator, has administered the Dyson School’s leadership program since 2007 (130 students), and is a Certified Facilitator of The Student Leadership Challenge. Deb also has been an admirer of Shackleton’s leadership for years and was fortunate to meet Annie Socci, a COE Facilitator and Outward Bound instructor, who shares the same passion for his story. Together with Jim Volckhausen, COE Team and Leadership Manager, and Al Gonzalez, founder of GIVE Leadership Institute, they designed this unique leadership program. Deb can be reached at djl243@cornell.edu.


[i] Harvard Business Review. Leadership in Crisis: Ernest Shackleton and the Epic Voyage of the Endurance. Nancy F. Koehn. 9-803-127. Rev: December 2, 2010.

[ii] Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition. Dennis N.T. Perkins.

[iii] The Leadership Wheel: Five Steps for Achieving Individual and Organizational Greatness. C. Clinton Sidle. 2005.

Category: Activities

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NASPA Journal, 2009, Vol. 46, no. 4

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"Beth and Gary are so personable that I was totally comfortable asking anything. For a program with such vigor, these two facilitators do an amazing job of creating a safe, fun, and functional learning environment."
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– Nina Vasan and Jennifer Przybylo
authors of Do Good Well

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– Marcy Levy Shankman
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"I am so passionate about leadership and making a difference and I truly, honestly, wholeheartedly believe in The Student Leadership Challenge model. It is complete, yet simple enough, for all to understand. SO very excited to share this model with others, both on-campus and in the community.
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– Suzanne Von Behren, RN, BSN, University Wellness Services
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"I feel that a program like this could really work in helping to eventually change our culture within our schools, homes, and businesses. Although I am not a supervisor, I plan to implement the model fully in our office and look forward to sharing it with coworkers. I love The Student Leadership Challenge model and am so excited!
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– Suzanne Von Behren, RN, BSN, University Wellness Services
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– Jason R. Pierce, director of education
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– Matt Baker, Vice President of Student Affairs
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– Victor K Wilson, vice president for student affairs
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"Student leadership challenges are quite similar to adult challenges, and yet they differ as wel­­l– in scale and in the power of peer perspective. Kouzes and Posner have constructed a wide and sturdy bridge across these worlds. My college students will find relevant lessons and great inspiration in the diverse and compelling stories that are retold. We’d have a lot less adult leadership problems if more teachers and students used this great book.
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– Dan Mulhern, Distinguished Practitioner of Law and Business
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– Kimberly Piatt, coordinator of leadership development
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"An excellent one-stop resource for activities to engage student of different learning styles. Students will find the experiential nature of the activities easy to comprehend and most importantly be able to see the relevance and application of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership."
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