Smeal MBA students learn leadership, decision-making lessons in Gettysburg

By Andy Elder
May 07, 2015

Thirteen Penn State Smeal College of Business MBA students stood ankle deep in rain-soaked grass near McPherson Barn on the Gettysburg battlefield. A pair of red-winged blackbirds flitted about, alighting on cattails in a nearby marsh.

The second-year students listened as Carol Reardon, the George Winfree Professor of American History at Penn State and a renowned Civil War expert, explained how Union and Confederate troops came to meet in Gettysburg in a battle neither side had anticipated.

The April trip to Gettysburg and into history was a culminating leadership experience, a reaffirmation of the skills honed across nearly two years in the Smeal MBA Program. The students worked to retain and understand Reardon’s leadership lessons from around the battlefield and consider answers to a few key questions:

-- What did the commanding officer do to help his superior accomplish the mission?

-- What has the commanding officer done to prepare himself for the moment?

-- What is the commanding officer doing to prepare his subordinates for the moment?

“Dr. Reardon's framework for evaluating decision-making is something that I'll bring with me in my post-Smeal positions,” said Tim Sandusky, who will use his MBA finance concentration after graduation at the Philadelphia office of ZS Associates, a marketing and sales consulting firm in Philadelphia.

The Gettysburg trip was the fourth immersion opportunity for this group of graduating students. First-year Smeal MBAs experience career immersion near the beginning of the program, during which there are workshops, individualized coaching and mentoring sessions, and opportunities for alumni and executive interaction. Later in the first year, students embarked on global immersion trips to pivotal international business regions, with past visits to Chile, China, India, Turkey and the Czech Republic.

In the second year, students are exposed to a negotiation immersion and then, near the end of the program, they can choose from several leadership immersion options like the visit to Gettysburg. In 2014, students traveled to the New York Fire Academy or the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidate School. This year, a group of students once again returned to Quantico for Marine training.

“The immersion trips are important because they bridge a gap between theoretical and practical knowledge. Going off-site enables students, faculty and staff to view situations in a dynamic environment while still remaining mindful of fundamental theories, processes and current practices,” said Eric Orient, MBA student services director.

After learning about the genesis of the battle at Gettysburg, the Smeal students stopped at nearly a dozen key points on the battlefield. At each location, Reardon gave a thorough description of commanding officers and field conditions and then assigned students the role of key personnel. The students had to then answer questions based solely on the information they had been provided.

“I think the most important lesson I learned was the importance of making quick and informed decisions in the heat of the moment,” said Boakai Lalugba, who concentrated in marketing as a Smeal MBA. “The officers were asked to make decisions sometimes with incomplete information and the lives of thousands were put in their hands. In the business world, you will be asked to make decisions with incomplete information and it will be my job to obtain as much information as possible.”

At each stop, the students’ answers seemed to come quicker. Reardon’s reinforcement of general leadership and decision-making principles combined with the students’ comfort in interpreting situations, produced longer, more detailed responses.

“This Gettysburg trip was valuable because it presented students with timeless challenges regarding logistics, communication, decision-making and leadership,” Orient said. “The American Civil War was merely a foundation for getting to the root of the some of these complex issues that all business leaders will face in their careers.”

As the day wore on and the military lessons blended with leadership concepts Smeal emphasizes, the students said they recognized how leadership and decision-making skills are universal.

“If anyone feels like their leadership lessons feel artificial or sanitized because they take place in the classroom, I would recommend this trip to them. It brings those leadership skills to life and shows exactly why we would need them,” said Beth Robinson, who earned simultaneous law and MBA degrees with a concentration in supply chain management. After graduation she will work for Chevron in Houston.

Sandusky said this and other immersion experiences are highlights of the Smeal experience.

“I would absolutely recommend this trip to my classmates,” he said. “Leadership of this type will be one of the most important long-term skills in our future careers as managers.”

  • Smeal MBAs at Pennsylvania memorial

    A group of Penn State Smeal College of Business second-year MBA students paused to pose for a picture at a memorial to fallen soldiers from central Pennsylvania. Many of those soldiers who died on a nearby battlefield at Gettysburg volunteered from the eight-year-old Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, as Penn State was called at the time.

    IMAGE: By Andy Elder
  • MBA students look down from Little Round Top

    Penn State Smeal College Business MBA students look down from Little Round Top, the location of some key skirmishes during the Civil War. Commanding officers were forced to make some crucial leadership decisions on and near that hilltop.

    IMAGE: By Andy Elder
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Last Updated August 24, 2015