By Published: Dec. 7, 2020

President's Leadership class outing

Students in a President's Leadership Class outing participate in a ropes course in the mountains. Credit: Patrick Campbell/CU Boulder 

Two Colorado institutions are forging a partnership aimed at bolstering leadership education for students so they can hit the real world after graduation with the critical thinking skills and self-confidence they need to succeed.

CU Boulder this week announced a new partnership with Colorado Outward Bound School to provide a four-credit upper division leadership course through the campus’ newly expanded Center for Leadership that culminates with time in the wilderness.

Leadership in Context and Emerging Challenges: A Wilderness Capstone (LEAD 4000) is elemental to the first formal partnership between CU Boulder and Colorado Outward Bound School, and a critical new piece of the university’s innovative Leadership Studies Minor.

“This course offers a vision of leadership development that focuses on students becoming ethical leaders who can foster change in the world,” said Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano, who oversees leadership initiatives on campus. “The Colorado Outward Bound School has 58 years of experience cultivating leadership and self-reliance and we are excited to create new leadership pathways for our students.”

The Outward Bound-inspired course launched last spring but the pandemic derailed spring break outdoor components planned in Moab, Utah. With new knowledge about how to conduct the program amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, students in the class this spring will engage in wilderness activities near Leadville in March – assuming public health guidelines allow it.

If allowed, students will head to the backcountry, snowshoe, learn to make a winter camp – including a snow hut and ‘winter kitchen,’ learn orienteering skills, all the while emphasizing teamwork and leadership.

There is also a dynamic classroom component to the course, focusing on personal leadership development, leadership theory and analysis, and ethical and moral leadership. Among other things, students will delve into their own leadership philosophy and identity by reflecting critically and deeply on themselves, their core motives and values, and how their world view shapes their decisions.

“I love the CU leadership program,” said Colorado Outward Bound School Executive Director Lauren Schmidt. “I love the idea of a long-term partnership that can be built into the Leadership Studies Minor. Every course we do has a leadership curriculum component, but this is the first course we’ve run that is really specific to teaching leadership skills in the scope of a larger leadership curriculum.”

A match made in…the mountains

Schmidt reflected on the myriad ways in which leadership is woven into the fabric of both the CU Boulder Center for Leadership and the Colorado Outward Bound School. She looks forward to building upon this initial first step.

"Collaborative problem-solving is a huge component of the course experience, and in addition to teamwork we focus on critical thinking, identifying areas of strength and improvement, and other tools to overcome short-term challenges for long-term rewards," Schmidt said.

And there is something about being outdoors that has “a way of distilling complex problems into their most essential components.” For instance, for the experiential portion of the course, students will carry everything they need to survive on their backs (and no, that doesn’t include a mobile phone or any electronics). The fundamental question becomes: How do I get from Point A to Point B safely?

Interestingly, two skills taught in the course are resiliency – how to bounce back after setbacks like a global pandemic - and compassion. Both traits have come into stark relief since the pandemic took hold of every corner of human life around the world last spring.

“There is lots of healing we need to do,” Schmidt said. “In my experience, the best leaders lead with empathy. We need a lot more empathy in this world right now.”

The course will draw from a cast of instructors with diverse backgrounds and experiences. In the spring, Maj. Gen. Bill Mullen III, who recently retired from a high-level position in the U.S. Marine Corps, will co-lead the course. While students won’t be steeped in the type of mountain warfare and desert training Mullen’s well-versed in, there are common themes such as the importance of getting out of your comfort zone, he said.

“A lot of our limitations are self-imposed,” Mullen said. “If you have mental toughness you can get through just about anything.”

There are various informal connections between Colorado Outward Bound School and CU Boulder. Former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall serves on the Center for Leadership Board of Advisors. Prior to becoming an elected official, Udall served as a field instructor then executive director of the Colorado Outward Bound School.

Bottom line: You never know what an outdoor experience can lead to. Schmidt left her 19-year career as a lawyer to lead the Colorado Outward Bound School because of the imprint a 300-mile backpacking trip with her father on the Pacific Crest Trail as a young adult left on her.

"Our experiences in the backcountry—recognizing our limitations and pushing past themstrengthen our character in ways that continue to shape who we become," Schmidt said. "We're reminded we can achieve more than we thought possible."