Giants are sometimes made by stretching ordinary men and women under the right circumstances with the right tools. Those who study leadership can marvel at the powers that some people summon under challenging or stressful circumstances. Instead of being downtrodden, these people emerge from the ordeals with superior, even legendary, leadership skills. Among our historical examples, we can count Cincinnatus, who, after leaving his plow in the field of his farm, mobilized the army in response to a crisis and personally led the attack to save Rome. Likewise, many other people across time have attained gargantuan leadership skills by summoning their inner strengths under pressure.
After witnessing first-hand the emerging leadership capital of my classmates over the last 20 months, I believe that the intensity of Darden has conjured the magical circumstances and tools in its curriculum and environment to create the environment where an above-average leader can be converted into a titan of leadership. My classmates and I have virtually molted from our pre-MBA selves and undeniably undergone a metamorphosis in leadership demeanor. In fact, I had a recent flash of just how much my class has developed highly-polished public speaking and presentation skills.
This change has not occurred overnight, but it is very obvious in retrospect. Less than two years ago, as we first came together as a class, we lurched through personal introductions, faltering at the choice of words, staggering through our self-descriptions. Now, nearing the end of our classwork, I had the pleasure of seeing my classmates as they expertly executed a final presentation in our leadership presence course. I was thrilled to watch them as they, in turn, commanded the podium, thundered with inspirational prose, drew down a hush on the crowd, coaxed out a tearful empathy, or otherwise transformed themselves into mesmerizing manifestations of leadership. One reserved engineer became an animated historian who described how he drew inspiration and confidence from all of interactions of the class over the program. Another already capable speaker transcended her comfort zone and added a new depth of expression to her presentation. A determined, analytical type had us in stitches with a spot-on, lampooning stand-up routine.
While this leadership presence class undeniable gave a setting for the demonstration of these skills, there were also many prior building blocks in the intense experiences in the Darden program that led to these moments. For example, over the last two years, the case method sessions have given us consistent opportunities to express ideas in a public venue. We have grown accustomed to speaking up constantly in our classes as we engaged in the oral give-and-take of the case method. Due to the nature of the multi-perspective classroom, we have unconsciously shaped our expressions into pithy and witty sound bites that explain and persuade our business views.
We have also had a thorough grounding in general management and leadership. Both of these subjects emphasize the necessity of influencing and directing people in order to create value in businesses. These disciplines allow us to transcend the detached numbers of the spreadsheet, and show us how to put words into action to draw out the contributions of individuals in the workplace. In an exquisite balance, we have also studied ourselves, spending the last two terms considering our own professional development. We have been challenged to define ourselves, our skills and our goals, and to be able to coherently pitch them to others. We have been trained not only to think about where we are and where we want to go professionally, but also how to actively enlist others to help us get there.
In totality, these courses have been a crucible though which our leadership presence has been refined. y their subjects and methods, these classes have not only increased our knowledge base, but have forced us to look for better, stronger and more effective ways to communicate our ideas. As they challenged us, they also rewarded us with immediate feedback on our ability to effectively connect with others.
As we now approach our final leadership residency, on the way to graduation, we now see ourselves more clearly in the mirror, displaying our own burgeoning leadership skills. As we look back on the last two years, it has become more obvious with the passage of time that we have been stretched by the intense program at Darden. As our class has become more adept at spreadsheets, formulas and business theories, we have likewise become skilled at the external manifestations of leadership. With our new carriage of confidence, we have developed the skills to implement this knowledge, so that we can effectively think, speak and influence others as we pursue our business goals.
Peter Vanderloo is an in-house lawyer at a well-known tech company in the first year of the Executive MBA program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. His previous posts at Poets&Quants for Execs: