Helping MBA Students Scale Mount Everest
More than 900 first-year students participate in the simulation exercise to climb Mt. Everest. Along the way, they learn both what it’s like to lead and how to be an effective part of a team.
04 May 2017  

It is more than 7,000 miles from the Harvard Business School campus to Mount Everest, and another 29,000 feet up to the mountain’s summit. Each year faculty members like Assistant Professor Ethan Bernstein bridge that distance and help MBA students make it to the top. Virtually, at least.

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Bernstein leads a simulation in which MBA students are randomly divided into teams of five and tasked with climbing the world’s tallest mountain. While students fall short of burning the 16,000 calories a day (approximately 20 cheeseburgers) the climb requires in real life, the exercise is designed to be intellectually and emotionally rigorous. Each student is assigned a specific role and given specific information, and only by effectively sharing that information and cooperating with their teammates can they successfully navigate the treacherous trip to the top.

According to Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management and one of the authors of Everest Leadership and Team Simulation, the exercise is meant to mimic the kind of pressure-filled environments students are likely to encounter as future leaders of industry, and take them from theory straight into practice. As in the business world, effective teamwork is crucial. Through their successes and failures, as well as by watching videos of themselves during the simulation afterward, students get direct and often surprising feedback about their communication and cooperation skills and where their own vulnerabilities lie.

They also get a chance to actually experience Everest through the account of Jim Clarke (MBA 1992), who made his own climb and is featured in video that accompanies the simulation. In the video, Clarke discusses everything from logistics and technical aspects to the rigors of operating in an environment where taking a single step requires at least five breaths of air. Edmondson discusses the case in detail in an episode of Cold Call


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