Published: Nov. 11, 2021

Success through discomfort––those are the words Aaron Roof uses to describe the wilderness section of his Lead 4000 course: Leadership in Context of Emerging Challenges. The words themselves are discomforting, but that’s the point of the exercise and in his opinion a learned trait that serves all budding leaders well.

Roof, director of the CU Boulder Center for Leadership and former U.S. Army infantry and special operations officer, uses his experiences to help teach the capstone course for students completing the Leadership Studies Minor.

 Learn more about designing your path to earning a Leadership Studies Minor.

A focal point of the course is the wilderness experience section. From March 20 to 23, students will head to the Collegiate Peaks of Colorado for winter camping with Outward Bound and Buena Vista Mountain Adventures. During their week in the wilderness, they’ll participate in outdoor skills training, fireside chats, while taking on various positions of leadership. 

“One of the focuses of the Lead 4000 course, which I think is critical in developing leadership skills, is the notion of seeking discomfort,” Roof said. “The wilderness section of the course is about stress and hardship. If you’re going to change the world, or make any meaningful change, it’s going to be uncomfortable for some people. However, with discomfort comes the opportunity to persevere through adversity and build self-confidence and grit.”

Another benefit of the course, which has two sections being offered next spring (Roof’s section 050, and one being taught by Ret. U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. William Mullen, section 020), is learning different perspectives on leadership from students engaged in different programs across campus. 

“Being in the same course with students from business and engineering, ROTC, the Multicultural Leadership Scholars Program, Presidents Leadership Class, among others, brings students together who all view leadership through a different lens,” Roof said. 

Registration for the course is open now. For more information, please contact

 From Center for Leadership Director Aaron Roof

On leadership education at CU Boulder

One of the things that sets CU Boulder apart from other universities when it comes to leadership education is that it is one of the chancellor’s imperatives. We are directed to “shape tomorrow’s leaders and positively impact humanity.’’ Having support from the top of the university allows us to be all reaching.

For example, at CU Boulder the business school or ROTC are not the only keepers of leadership development, but rather the Center for Leadership ensures it spans every school, college and department within the university. We are also one of only a few universities that apply academic credit for our experiential leadership education.

Students build a fire during leadership courseOn experiential leadership training

Experiential learning means taking students out of the classroom where they can experience leadership in a real world setting. One example, as I mentioned before, is through our wilderness section of the leadership capstone where students are put to the test. We put them under a spotlight where they have consequences for their decisions.

We aren’t just talking about hypotheticals, we are out there testing them when the pressure is on. Adversity reveals true character and we seek to develop leaders of character. So that’s what we do. We give our students an opportunity to get out there and practice leadership, which is really the only way you can truly learn to lead.

On the importance of leadership skills

I think it is generally accepted that success in life is not based on your transcript or your undergraduate degree, as much as it is on what I call human skills. To me these include the abilities to work well with others, being a good team player, showing initiative, solving problems, communicating well, acting ethically, being empathetic.

These are the skills that lead to success in life, regardless of industry. So your degree may get you in the door, but success is based on these other factors, all of which are aspects of leadership.

Is leadership for everyone?

I think there is a false narrative around leadership, and that is that leaders are all extroverted, gregarious, powerful business people or perhaps politicians. But when we talk about contemporary leaders we admire, it may not be political leaders like in years past, but rather people like Greta Thunberg or Amanda Gorman.

Today’s complex problems will not be solved by a single individual. Every issue we face is, at its heart, a leadership issue. Positive change will require a group of people working together to accomplish any meaningful outcome. Every community, every team, every office, every department, every family needs a leader.