The Shifting Sands of Leadership: Gaining Experience in the Gobi Desert
While the theoretical exploration of global business trends is essential for any business school programme, it is just as important to test theories, practices and personal capabilities in a practical, hands-on manner wherever possible. Moreover, the current global business landscape demands it, given its almost brutal pace of change. Keeping up is a daily challenge felt at the individual, organisation and industry levels, while maintaining any lead over the competition has never been more demanding.
To simulate this reality, CEIBS Professor of Management Jean Lee has developed one of the most rigorously challenging, and highly anticipated, modules of the academic year – Leadership in Action. Over the course of one week back in September, around 140 students drawn from the our Global EMBA, Chinese EMBA, Finance MBA and English-language MBA programmes put their minds, bodies and business acumen to the test in the harsh conditions of the Gobi Desert. Not only was this an inspiring module to boost their leadership skills, it was also an opportunity for Global EMBA students to network with their fellow students from other programmes.
Professor Jean Lee addressing on the opening of the module
Leadership in Action – A necessity for the current business climate
As the module’s name suggests, everything about this experience was designed to test students’ ability to successfully apply their theoretical knowledge and skills in a scenario that required active participation and dynamic leadership at every stage.
The physical challenge involved was substantial. Each day, students had to trek across the desert as a team while navigating their chosen route. Day 2 was a gruelling 33 kilometres across some of the most unforgiving desert terrain the region has to offer. Furthermore, teams either succeeded or failed as a single unit, meaning that no individual member could race ahead or lag behind.
The hiking, however, was only one element of the wider challenge. As well as navigating, communicating and planning their own logistics, teams were set numerous tasks and missions en route. Some were physical, some more cerebral in nature, but all were designed to impart lessons with real-life business applications. While the module was designed to encourage self-discovery and enable a unique chance to develop leadership skills, its lessons also hinged on the broader reality that business is based on competition. Each team was there to win, to outpace their competitors not just literally in the desert, but also by out-thinking, out-planning and out-manoeuvring them.
As is the case in any real-world industry, grit and determination were essential ingredients for success, but so were strategic thinking, forward planning, and situational awareness.
Four Gobi Gladiators – Perspectives from Global EMBA participants
To gain some personal insights into this year’s Leadership in Action module, we asked four of the participants from the Global EMBA Class of 2019 about their experience.
Diana Liu: Senior Director at Walmart China
Daniel Gao: China General Manager at Catalent Pharma Solutions
Neil Wu: Partner at Roland Berger
Meng Wang: Senior Director at Tim Hortons China
Preparation – Mind and Body
Before striking out into the desert, participants were briefed extensively on the nature and severity of the challenge they would face. Alongside practical concerns of preparing suitable clothing, footwear and other support equipment, students had to ready themselves physically and mentally.
Diana: While it was impossible to get a true sense of the harsh, yet beautiful, desert environment before arriving, we were all aware that this was going to be a tough module. Several alumni told me that it would be a remarkable challenge in so many ways, and an experience that I simply couldn’t miss.
Diana Liu, CEIBS Global EMBA 2019
Daniel: I had undertaken the CEIBS Gobi Challenge before this module, so I knew what to expect from the environment. However, the Gobi Challenge was primarily an individual-based, physical contest. Immediately, I understood that this module would be entirely different. It called for much greater situational awareness, planning, teamwork and adaptability to the environment.
Once assembled in the desert, participants were assigned to different teams. Each team then had to choose its leader and deputy, after receiving pitches from those eager to take on the position. A running theme for the module, these crucial decisions were made under extremely tight time conditions, prompting short pitches from prospective leaders, and even shorter decision-making processes.
Daniel Gao (right), CEIBS Global EMBA 2019
Meng: You really had to sell yourself quickly. Five minutes is not much time to make an impression and convince others that you’re the one to lead them through this incredibly tough three-day challenge. This set the tone for the whole module – think fast, agile decision making, act decisively and make changes quickly.
Hitting their Gobi stride
Much like a startup, our students had to quickly acclimatise themselves to the harsh conditions they were operating in. Not only were there physical considerations to manage, participants also had to forge an optimal team dynamic as well. Tasks were invariably time sensitive; teams who failed to make decisions or complete challenges quickly and efficiently soon found themselves losing valuable points as well as time. This contributed to their overall ranking at the end of the three-day module, emphasising the fact that in business, speed is most useful when it is paired with a viable strategy.
Meng: From the start, each team had to assess the mental and physical capabilities of its teammates and establish a good rhythm. This wasn’t an individual effort; it was all about the team. You had to support your teammates, sometimes literally helping to hold them up at their lowest points.
The extreme environment of the Gobi was a fundamental part of the learning experience. Students remarked on how much they needed to alter their learning approach to suit the conditions.
Meng Wang (right), CEIBS Global EMBA 2019
Neil: Being in the Gobi was essential to this learning experience – it simply wouldn’t have worked as well if we were trekking somewhere mild and forgiving. You learn so much more about yourself when you’re under pressure. In the classroom, you have the ‘luxury’ to consider things in a more relaxed, measured way. However, once you take yourself out of a comfortable environment, you’re immediately operating on a higher, more instinctive level.
Neil Wu (middle), CEIBS Global EMBA 2019
Daniel: We were tired and stressed at points, which made us express ourselves honestly. There was conflict but, like real business, this is unavoidable and should be welcomed. Your organisation can’t be 100% harmonious all the time. Sometimes things will go wrong, things will get tough, tempers will flare, and you have to find a way to resolve conflict and come out of it a stronger team. That way the whole team can grow.
Getting strategic – The teams view the wider landscape
Once each day’s trek was over, there was still work to be done. Having reached their assigned end point for the day, the weary Gobi wanderers immediately went into several rounds of assessment. Initially, they reviewed the day’s events in their teams, before their assigned spokespersons presented their findings to the whole group.
These discussions spanned everything from individual highlights and low points experienced that day, to wider strategic concerns related to target setting, team communications, morale considerations and more. Teams would openly assess their performance, before debating any necessary refinements to their approach for the following day. For our Global EMBA students, this built on the work they had undertaken in the opening leadership module, and proved invaluable in informing their view on leadership and team dynamics.
Neil: We were ranked at the bottom at the end of Day 1. This prompted a debate over our strategy, targets and our general motivation. After a concrete and aligned target setting, discussions on our individual roles and team communication mechanism, our team ended Day 2 ranked number 1. This is how you turn a ‘group’ into a ‘team’, by understanding the reality of the team dynamic and the motivations of the people within it, and trying to realize a consensus of a common target and strategy.
Daniel: It was fascinating to see the evolution of our team’s thought process. On Day 1, our goal was to ensure we got through the module safely and successfully. On day two, though, we raised our ambition to wanting to win the competition. By Day 3, we were as eager as any other team to push through the pain and win it, and we gave the winners a really good chase too!
Diana: Leading is tough, but being a leader amongst leaders is even tougher! Strong, conflicting opinions amongst such a group are inevitable but are also an invaluable source of learning. We examined our decision-making process much more closely – and focused on our goals more intently – by Day 2 after the initial round of assessments.
Reflecting on the Nature of Leadership
Across all their accounts, a recurring theme from our four participants was the importance of using practical, hands-on learning experiences to put their theories about business, teamwork and leadership to the test. Each of them went into the desert with theories and expectations about how they would react to this unique learning environment and the leadership challenges it would create. They came out with a deeper understanding of their own capabilities, and renewed appreciation for the ever-evolving principles of good leadership.
Meng: I was very impressed with the overall structure and design of the module. This was a highly practical learning experience with real-world applications. In terms of leadership challenges this is as real as it gets, because in the desert we had nowhere to hide! It’s not like being in the office or the boardroom – everyone had to prove themselves and keep pushing, keep contributing, 100% of the time.
Daniel: Experiences like this show that leadership should be about setting up conditions for the team to succeed by letting all members thrive. It’s not about micromanaging, it’s about understanding your team, knowing what motivates them and then giving them the right vision and inspiring them to reach for it.
Daniel Gao (right), CEIBS Global EMBA 2019
Neil: Leadership is about ownership and initiative; it’s about motivating your team to step forward and take responsibility. This module highlighted the importance of effective co-active leadership, and I experienced it personally on Day 3 when I joined a new team made up of members who had hurt themselves in the previous days. Everyone demonstrated true grit, individually stepping up at key moments to help drive the team onward.
Diana: I learned so much from this module, about myself and about the nature of leadership itself. Valuing conflict and conflict resolution was a lesson that really hit home. In our regular working lives, we frequently avoid, downplay or even ignore points of conflict, missing vital opportunities to improve our organisations. In the desert, we slept, ate and trekked together the whole time – our conflicts could not be left unresolved! As leaders, we ought to follow this mind-set at all times.
A wealth of experience in unfamiliar places
Congratulations must go to Daniel’s team for securing their place as this year’s champions. However, every participant in the 2021 Leadership in Action module should reflect on their time in the Gobi Desert with pride. This module is the latest in an expanding series of opportunities for CEIBS students to actively come together, learn together, and learn from one another.
Meng: It was great to mix with students from across the different programmes. Diversity is one of the inherent strengths of the Global EMBA programme, and this approach only extends it further. The different backgrounds, perspectives, diversity of opinions and approaches just made the module more useful and enjoyable.
Diana: This whole module was designed to emulate real-life business conditions, and the mixing of students from different programmes helped achieve this. Each team was more like a real company as a result; in larger organisations you generally don’t have everyone from the same background, intent on achieving the same thing. It was great to connect with our fellow CEIBS students from other programmes.
Diana Liu, CEIBS Global EMBA 2019
Congratulations again to all the students, faculty members and support staff involved. The 2022 edition of the Leadership in Action module is already being predicted as the setting for an elective bidding war that will be hotter than the Gobi itself!