Wharton Leadership Ventures, a program of the school’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, believes in developing leadership that can stand up under fire. As part of that initiative, the center recently took a group of Wharton students to the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va. The goal: To provide intensive leadership training while drawing parallels between the similarity of challenges on the battlefield and in business. Michael Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, believes that such exercises offer valuable lessons. “The most important lesson of these programs is that they help you to think strategically and act decisively,” he says. Stephen Lessar and Jason Cummins, two MBA students, were part of the group that went through the drill. Here is their report from the trenches:

As the chartered buses pulled into the dark, desolate parking lot of the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, the initial excitement quickly turned to silent apprehension. In the distance, the unfamiliar sight of seven waiting drill instructors slowly began to appear. While many may wonder what a Wharton MBA student has in common with a Marine Corps Officer Candidate, one answer is apparent. Both attend a premier leadership institution whereby upon graduation they are well prepared to be leaders in their chosen fields. Moreover, there is at least one other noteworthy similarity: Both now know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a drill instructor’s wrath.

On April 19-20, some 85 Wharton students traveled to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, Virginia as part of the Wharton Leadership Ventures initiative. The day-and-a-half trip, sponsored by Lehman Brothers and organized by the Wharton Veterans Club, was designed to provide students with an insider’s view of how the Marines train their junior leaders. OCS, effectively a “boot camp for officers,” evaluates the leadership potential of college graduates who aspire to be Marine officers. Wharton students signed up for the trip hoping to understand how to apply military leadership lessons to today’s business environment.

As soon as the students arrived in Quantico, the Marine drill instructors took charge of their new “recruits.” The students were issued equipment, including kevlar helmets and canteens, and quickly hustled into the barracks for a crash course on making a bed to Marine standards. After this hour-long welcome, the drill instructors marched the students to a briefing from Colonel George Flynn, the commander of OCS. Colonel Flynn explained that having the drill instructors create an unfamiliar, chaotic environment is important because it allows officer candidates to be evaluated under extremely stressful situations. An audible sigh of relief filled the auditorium when Colonel Flynn informed the students that the “basic training” portion of their visit was over – the drill instructors would assume a mentoring role for the duration of the students’ stay.

Friday morning began with a 5:00 AM wake-up and a typical military breakfast – scrambled eggs and strong coffee. Following breakfast, the students were divided into teams of four or five, linked up with their Marine facilitator and moved to the Combat Obstacle Course. As its name implies, this course is a series of progressively more difficult obstacles which challenge students to scale 20-foot walls, traverse ravines using only a single rope, and low crawl through the “Quigley”, a 100-foot stretch of frigid water and mud.

Each Marine completed every obstacle with his or her team, motivating the students to complete the physically demanding course and demonstrating the importance of leading by example. Said one student: “The basic principle of leading by example means little when you read it in a theoretical article. However, the point was driven home when 50 Marines spent more than an hour leading us through the Combat Course. This achieved a high level of commitment for us to jump into the mud and complete the course. This was a real-life demonstration that leading by example is effective in motivating others!”

From there, students transitioned to the Leadership Reaction Course (LRC). Consisting of a series of 20 problem-solving exercises – each contained in a walled-off area the size of a racquetball court – the LRC evaluates an individual’s ability to guide a small group in the solution of a difficult problem in an uncertain environment. Solving the problem is less important than how the leader demonstrates an understanding of sound leadership principles while executing the task. One particularly difficult exercise, for example, required student teams to transport a 55-gallon drum across a 12-foot river using only 3 wooden planks, none of which was long enough to reach the other side.

Each LRC event was followed by a thorough debrief led by the team’s Marine facilitator. The student leader first evaluated his or her performance while explaining the thought process behind each decision. After feedback from the group, the team’s facilitator offered his insights including potential solutions to the problem. Key learning points from the LRC were the importance of quick thinking and decisiveness in time-sensitive situations, as well as flexibility and risk-taking when operating in an uncertain environment.

The Wharton Leadership Venture culminated with dinner at the Quantico Officers’ Club. After dinner, several distinguished speakers, including active and retired Marine officers, spoke about “leadership and decision making under uncertainty and complexity.” While all the speakers were exceptional, especially noteworthy were Major General Clifford L. Stanley and Brigadier General (Retired) Thomas V. Draude. Major General Stanley, commanding general, Marine Corps Base, Quantico, illustrated the importance of caring for those you work with by sharing how the Marine Corps rallied around him during a devastating family tragedy. Brigadier General (Retired) Draude, currently senior vice president of USAA insurance company, detailed how the leadership skills developed in the Marine Corps have served him well in the private sector.

While there were no immediate volunteers for the next OCS class at Quantico, each of the Wharton students expressed a newfound respect for the Marines’ approach to leadership training. The Wharton Leadership Venture effectively captured the essence of Marine Corps leadership while providing students with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The fundamental principles of Marine Corps leadership are not only applicable on the battlefields but also in the boardrooms of global corporations.