Penn State Smeal MBA students learn leadership from U.S. Marine Corps

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It was a Friday morning at 7 a.m., and 15 still-tired Penn State Smeal College of Business MBA students sat alongside fellow business students from The Wharton School and Cornell University in a class on leadership and warfighting principles.

At first glance, this was not typical MBA classroom fare: “The currency and stakes of war are human lives. But it is a competition from which the principles used by a warfighter can be universally adapted,” one slide read. Nor was it a typical MBA classroom. The students were gathered in an auditorium on the United States Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va. — home of the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School — and in the midst of a 24-hour immersion program on leadership styles, culture and decision-making.

“The Marine Corps emphasizes decision-making in the face of adversity and uncertainty. Marine leaders must become comfortable with the 70 percent solution and then make adjustments as situations change,” said Erik Orient, MBA student services director and retired Marine officer. “The Quantico immersion was designed to take our students out of their comfort zones and to give them a sense of decision-making and leadership in a distinctly unfamiliar and challenging environment.”

The student contingency from Smeal arrived on base late the previous evening after a five-hour drive from the Penn State University Park campus, and despite the already-long day, the immersion activities began immediately.

“The Marine Corps emphasizes decision-making in the face of adversity and uncertainty. Marine leaders must become comfortable with the 70 percent solution and then make adjustments as situations change.”

    — Erik Orient, student services director,
Penn State Smeal MBA Program

Marine Drill Instructors instructed students to line up, pick up helmets and belts with attached canteens — which they would keep track of for the next 24 hours — and after a welcome from Col. Harold Van Opdorp, OCS Commanding Officer, were ushered into the barracks.

After a few hours of sleep — some students estimated they slept fewer than three hours — they were up again at 5 a.m. preparing for a full day of classroom sessions and activities. Students were divided into teams of four or five, assigned an active-duty Marine mentor, and sent forth to conquer the toughest tasks yet.

  • The Leadership Reaction Course (LRC) tasked teams with confronting seemingly insurmountable physical and mental challenges. The point of the challenges was not necessarily to complete them, the Marines told the students, but to build leadership, teamwork and decision-making skills in the attempts.
  • The high-ropes course focused on personal confidence. Students began by leaping onto a cargo net, and then traversed a number of barriers before a zip line ride over the Quigley — the legendary water obstacle they would experience later that afternoon.
  • The day’s physical activities culminated with a run through a shortened, simplified version of the obstacle-laden Combat Course that Marine Officer Candidates endure during training. The course included crawling through mud, traversing ropes obstacles and navigating 50 yards of water, logs, barbed wire and tunnels as part of the Quigley.
Students tackle the Quigley on their leadership immersion at Quantico

As part of the Combat Course, students navigated the Quigley: 50 yards of water, logs, barbed wire and tunnels.

Image: Lori Wilson, Marketing and Public Relations, Smeal College of Business

Joshua Mathis, now beginning his career with Deloitte as a senior consultant in Washington, D.C., wanted to go to Quantico to stretch his boundaries.

“The whole program definitely pushes you out of your comfort zone,” he said. “It also focuses on removing doubt from your thought process. You have to make decisions and actions quickly and trust that you are making the best decision given the information you have.”

“I’ll carry the lessons I learned at Quantico forward throughout my career. I learned to trust myself more, and that I’m capable of doing things that I would have thought I couldn’t do. The experience gave me the confidence that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to.”

    — Joshua Mathis, Class of 2014,
Penn State Smeal MBA Program

Students said that one of the greatest leadership lessons they learned throughout the day was through watching the way their team instructors led by example — a tenet of Marine Corps leadership.

“My team’s leader, Capt. Gulliksen, was an amazing leader. He didn’t ask us to do anything he wasn’t willing to do with us, and he supported us every step of the way,” said Mathis. “If he saw one of us was uncomfortable with a situation, he would slow down and encourage us to finish strong.”

After a grueling day of physical tasks on very little sleep, students were rewarded with much-needed showers and a closing reception at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

“With a two-year, residential program like the Penn State Smeal MBA, we have the opportunity to provide experiences that build and enhance our students’ skills, both tangible and intangible. Experiences like the one at Quantico offer lessons that will last a lifetime.”

    — Carrie Marcinkevage, managing director,
Penn State Smeal MBA Program

“I’ll carry the lessons I learned at Quantico forward throughout my career. I learned to trust myself more, and that I’m capable of doing things that I would have thought I couldn’t do,” said Mathis. “The experience gave me the confidence that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to.”

Penn State Smeal MBA Managing Director Carrie Marcinkevage, who not only attended the leadership immersion with the students but also took her turn in the Quigley, believes the experience was life changing for everyone.

“Not only did the Marines really educate all of us on their leadership philosophies and the way that they approach challenges, but they also provided us an immersive experience allowing us to put in practice all those teamwork and leadership skills that they imparted,” she said.

The immersion at Quantico, as well as a previous “Firefighter for a Day Challenge” immersion with the Fire Department of the City of New York, are part of a new leadership immersion experience offered for the first time this year. Marcinkevage says she hopes that both trips will be offered again in the future.

“With a two-year, residential program like the Penn State Smeal MBA, we have the opportunity to provide experiences that build and enhance our students’ skills, both tangible and intangible,” she said. “Experiences like the one at Quantico offer lessons that will last a lifetime.”

About the Penn State Smeal MBA Program
The internationally ranked residential Penn State Smeal MBA Program positions students from around the world for their future careers. The two-year program, based on the University Park campus, begins with a focus on business fundamentals. Through summer internships with top companies and concentration opportunities in areas such as finance, marketing and supply chain management, students then personalize their Smeal MBA experiences to align with their career aspirations. Learn more at www.smeal.psu.edu/mba.

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Last Updated June 13, 2014