Advanced lessons in basic training

Special to Western News

The dusty and sweaty trails of the Canadian Forces Base Borden, just north of Barrie, Ont., might just be the last place you’d expect to find business students. But for one week this past summer, close to 40 Ivey Business School students where put through their paces in what can only be referred to as ‘business boot camp.’

Challenged mentally and physically, the military mindset of the new Leadership Under Fire: Developing Character course is a far cry from the gleaming walls and polished tables at the Richard Ivey Building – which is the whole idea.

Organizational Behaviour professor Gerard Seijts said good leaders learn from experience. If they are lucky, they eventually become aware of their limitations and take steps to address them, but, unfortunately, history shows too many leaders fail to become aware of their blind spots until it is too late, he added.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Seijts, executive director of Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute of Leadership. “The need to stress-test balance sheets of financial institutions is generally accepted as a prudent form of risk management. So, why not test the character of managers of organizations where leadership character plays a major role in determining success or failure?

“Better yet, why not give business students a chance to assess themselves before they accept the significant responsibilities that come with managing organizations in today’s challenging environment?”

Unlike the management skills required to run businesses, teaching someone to understand their character, strengths and weaknesses isn’t something that can be done in a typical classroom, at least not effectively, Seijts said.

So, when two Canadian entrepreneurs, each with military backgrounds, approached him, a potential solution emerged.

John Mercer, MBA’86, is Toronto-based corporate strategy consultant and former captain and personal assistant to the commander of the Canadian Army. Larry Stevenson is managing director of Toronto’s Callisto Capital and former army platoon commander. (Stevenson, you may remember, led buyouts of SmithBooks in 1994 and Coles in 1995 and then revolutionized the Canadian book industry by founding the Chapters retail chain.)

The pair had the idea of combining business education with elements of the Basic Officer Training Course, which teaches the basics of leadership to every officer in the Canadian Forces before they move on to more advanced training.


Seijts, who heads up the course with fellow Ivey professor Lyn Purdy, said business schools have done an admirable job of researching and teaching the competencies deemed essential for individual and organizational success. However, he continued, the importance of leadership character and commitment, as cornerstones in the development of the next generation of business leaders, had been largely ignored.

Dubbed Ivey Platoon, students find themselves divided into units with military mentors, issued uniforms, assigned ranks and then expected to effectively perform as a team, while facing various challenges that expose their strengths and weaknesses – complete with the ‘in-your-face’ military training one would expect. Even Mother Nature proved she had what it takes to be a boot camp instructor by adding torrential rain and scorching humidity to the mix, presenting the students unexpected obstacles in completing their tasks.

“As an educational experience, Leadership Under Fire offers students an opportunity to open their minds and demonstrate courage by putting their leadership and followership abilities to the test in uncomfortable situations,” Seijts said. “But the physical side of the course is merely a vehicle to help students to reflect on their own character and developmental needs because good leaders require self-awareness and reflection capabilities.”

Unlike Ivey’s famed case method used in class, the focus with this fourth-year elective course is on ‘What to do?’ as opposed to ‘What would you do?’

“It’s is all about getting the job done,” he said. “Students must do much more than simply collaborate; they need to demonstrate good judgment, drive and courage in an ambiguous and challenging environment, while knowing they will be held accountable for their actions and attitudes as leaders and followers.

“The program isn’t about providing students with a boot camp experience; it’s about developing self-awareness. Simply put, partnering with the Canadian Forces allows Ivey to introduce its students to valuable military insights while honing their individual leadership and teaming abilities, instilling them with an understanding of the critical role character and commitment play in good leadership.”



Spencer Green, HBA’15

Anyone can lead when things are going smoothly, however, what this course showed me was that under stress, and outside your comfort zone, is when leadership becomes really difficult. This course gave me the opportunity to deeply reflect on myself as a leader, and a follower, and showed me real tangible ways to not only improve on what I was good at, but also make real changes to become a more effective team member.

Leadership means inspiring others to obtain a common goal and, to inspire, one must motivate their team to believe in, and own, the common goal. To motivate, one must gain the respect of their teammates and to gain the respect of their teammates, the leader must show great character. A leader must be capable and competent with the task at hand. The leader must also be extremely committed and work ruthlessly to reach the goal of the team. However, most importantly, the leader must show great character.

Shahrzad Pooya, HBA’15

It is one thing to say what you would do if you were in a particular situation, but it is something totally different to actually follow through and act on your decision in a time of need. How we lead during hard times can reveal so much about our character. Anyone can be a leader when it’s nice and sunny out, but this course answered for a lot of people if they have what it takes to lead through a storm.

Good leaders learn from their crucibles and take time to truly understand how and why certain outcomes were achieved. My experience with Leadership Under Fire is one of many crucibles for me and I will actively apply what I have learned about myself to future roles I will hold. Throughout my career, I will reflect on experiences like I had here, in the hopes of learning more and becoming a better leader.

Larry Blyth, HBA’16

When you’ve had barely three hours of sleep and have to lead a team of seven to build a 20-foot flag pole in under 15 minutes during a storm after walking 7 kms, you learn a lot about yourself – good and bad. It was these learnings, more than anything, that made it all worthwhile for me.

The course gave us a personalized roadmap to achieving our goals. It inspired me to seek out as many leadership opportunities as possible, because each one is another chance to grow into this vision. When presented with these opportunities in the classroom, business world or otherwise, I know that I will be able to build off of the traits I developed through the Leadership Under Fire course. (It) allowed me to become in control of my character and leadership development forever, and this is something you can’t achieve sitting in a classroom.

Amanda Hewitt, HBA’15

The stress during this course was coming at you from all angles – physically, mentally and emotionally. But that’s why it was so effective in developing the team’s character and leadership styles. I learned about the impact of high-stress situations on individual behaviour and the importance of good leadership during these times.

The Canadian Forces have a tried and true method that is a huge asset to their team in stressful situations, due to the familiarity of the way plans are devised and orders are received. The preparation and planning processes are also essential in the business world, especially as a method of risk mitigation for unexpected events.