Leadership in the Wild: UVA Darden Students Brave Patagonia’s Rough Climate, Terrain

By Lydia Hackert

At the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, students celebrate the uniquely collaborative culture, the rigor of the academic program and the life-changing learning experiences during their two years in Charlottesville.

This past March, 12 students and Professor Bobby Parmar took their Darden experience to the field as they spent six days backpacking through Patagonia in southern Chile.

This course, one of the many Darden Worldwide Courses offered by Darden’s Center for Global Initiatives, focused on building leadership skills and wilderness preparedness. The course was conducted in partnership with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a global nonprofit wilderness school that teaches leadership through remote wilderness expeditions and classroom courses.

The NOLS Experience

Over six days, the Darden expedition backpacked through the remote Patagonia wilderness, tackling a steep mountain pass and difficult terrain all the while facing difficult conditions of snow and rain. The participants left behind their cell phones and technology and carried everything they needed for the six days on their backs.

Allison Hagaman (MBA’18) noted how her Darden experience helped her manage the group dynamics in the field. “It was great to see how we taught each other on the expedition in the same way that we support each other’s learning in the Darden classroom.”

The expedition team included three NOLS instructors, who taught students technical wilderness skills and facilitated the leadership curriculum. But after one lesson, the students were encouraged to take ownership of responsibilities like navigation, cooking and setting up camp. With all of the responsibilities and difficulty of the terrain, teamwork was essential to the success of the expedition.

“Leadership in the wilderness and leadership in business have more in common than people might expect” said Parmar.

Communication and decision-making were two leadership skills that students focused on during the expedition. Communication was critical to ensure that everyone remained safe and to help the team work better together. Just as in business, leaders need to be sure that the vision and goals are clearly communicated and that feedback is given and received in a constructive manner.

Reflections on the Trail

Feedback was a central component of this course and an important tenant of the NOLS teaching culture. Each day brought new challenges, triumphs, and opportunities to learn and reflect. During the course of the trip, the expedition team faced a wide variety of terrain, including dense brush, snowy mountain passes and swift moving river crossings.

Each of the 12 students took turns assuming the responsibility of designated leader for a day of hiking. Designated leaders were responsible for communicating the goal for the day to their team; ensuring that each hiking team was self-sufficient with food, shelter and cooking gear in case groups were separated; and looking out for the individuals, group and expedition team as a whole.

From his day as the group’s designated leader, Sergi Pereira Sanchez (MBA ’18) gained new insight into his own strengths as a leader: “As a leader in adverse situations, I understand better from this experience and from the feedback of my peers the importance of taking care of myself and communicating my thoughts to my team.”

At the end of each day, the entire group would provide feedback to the designated leaders on their performance for that day. The NOLS curriculum also stressed the importance of other types of leadership:

  • Peer leadership — Supporting the leader and team members by taking the initiative to help and lead where you see a need
  • Active followership — Supporting the leader by actively participating in decision-making, seeking clarification and giving input
  • Self leadership — Taking responsibility for yourself by keeping in good spirits and staying safe and healthy on the expedition

New Behaviors in Business

The students said the opportunity to accept feedback from their peers and reflect on their own strengths will equip them to approach their careers after graduation with new behaviors and as leaders from all levels.

“Previously, I have focused on leading from the front. Now, I realize that leading from within can be much more powerful and rewarding,” said McKenzie Morton (MBA ’18).

“What most impressed me about this group of students is that many came in uncertain of their ability to tackle the physical and mental challenges of the trip. But they proved to themselves they could do it,” said Parmar. “These 12 students will now go out into business with the confidence that they can succeed in even the most uncertain and difficult circumstances.”

Lydia Hackert is a member of the Darden Class of 2018 and was one of the 12 students to attend the NOLS Experiential Leadership Elective in Patagonia.

Darden students trekked through the Patagonian wilderness in Chile on the NOLS Experiential Leadership course.
Darden students trekked through the Patagonian wilderness in Chile on the NOLS Experiential Leadership course.
The group's last team debrief on its last night of camping. The students held a debrief each night to share thoughts on how the day went and give feed back to designated leaders.
Darden Professor Bobby Parmar served as the faculty lead on the student's course in Patagonia.
Darden students trekked through the Patagonian wilderness in Chile on the NOLS Experiential Leadership course.
The students posed for a photo at the summit of the mountain pass they crossed after a harrowing climb over steep rock.
Darden students trekked through the Patagonian wilderness in Chile on the NOLS Experiential Leadership course.
About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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Director of Media Relations
Darden School of Business
University of Virginia