In a one-of-a kind program hosted at Sugarbush, participants boost their leadership skills through physical and mental challenges.
Six years ago, after dinner together in Allyn’s Lodge, Anthony Panos, an expert in corporate leadership and a longtime visitor to Sugarbush, started asking extreme-skiing legend John Egan to tell him stories about his adventures. One particular tale, about Egan’s attempt to summit Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak, grabbed Panos’s attention. As Egan told him about the failed expedition—in which one person died and several others, including Egan’s brother Dan, nearly died after they made the decision to head for the summit in the eye of a brutal storm—Panos started looking at the story through the lens of leadership. How did poor leadership undercut the expedition? How did good leadership decisions, by Egan and others, save some people who otherwise would have perished?
The next January, Panos, his colleague Laura Freebairn-Smith, and Egan created the Abundance Leadership Immersion Program at Sugarbush—a four-day intensive workshop for executive managers that uses a case study of the Mount Elbrus expedition as a jumping-off point. “Abundance leadership” is a concept explored by Freebairn-Smith, who founded the Organizational Performance Group with Panos and wrote her doctoral thesis about the idea of abundance versus scarcity and their effects on an organization. Abundance leaders see the world optimistically, as full of resources, and believe that power and information can and should be shared. Scarcity leaders, on the other hand, feel the need to hoard resources and be in control. According to Freebairn-Smith’s research, abundance leadership leads to healthier, happier, and more successful organizations. Freebairn-Smith argues that the abundance-versus-scarcity model helps explain why some people seem like natural leaders and others don’t. “Why do some leaders create such joy, and people want to follow them anywhere? And others create this sense of deep discomfort and angst in their followers?”
Throughout the program, the team tries to help people identify and develop the skills of an abundance leader. Each participant goes through an extensive 360-degree review by their colleagues before they get to Sugarbush. Once at the mountain, the group—usually about twelve people from a variety of companies around the country—faces a series of physical and mental challenges designed to test and expand their leadership capacity: hiking up the mountain on snowshoes; doing improvisational work to force them out of their comfort zone; crafting a life map to help examine the branching decisions and events that got them where they are; and participating in intensive individual coaching sessions; among other activities. The goal is for people to understand themselves as leaders through their successes and failures. “We want them to be more connected with themselves, who they are and how they take that into the workplace,” says Panos. As one participant described it, “Basically you’re stripping down the onion.”
As a stark way to understand abundance and scarcity leadership, the group examines the Mount Elbrus case study together. “It’s pretty obvious to see where our expedition falls apart,” says Egan. “So we relate this to the competencies you find in an organization.” Some of those who survived on Elbrus built snow caves to protect themselves from the storm. During the Abundance Leadership seminar, the participants are divided into groups and told to build their own snow caves. “We want them to feel what it was like for those people up there who had never tried to dig a snow cave, never tried to survive on their own,” says Egan. He and his colleagues look for examples of abundance and scarcity leadership in how the groups interact to create the shelters; later, they talk about those dynamics with the whole group. “It’s really interesting to watch,” Egan says. “We’ll have people say, ‘Okay, I was out of my comfort zone, and you’re right, I did act weird, and I did take it out on others.’ Or they might remember, ‘I just hung back and didn’t do anything because I saw that others knew what they were doing.’” An exercise such as this one, Egan says, brings out competencies that are “displayed in our human nature, and when that comes into the business setting it can be very disruptive.”
Ana Ignat, a department administrator at Weill Cornell Medicine, said that the snow cave exercise and the snowshoe hike set this program apart from other leadership programs she’s tried. “Doing the winter activities outside pushed some people a little bit over the limit. The activities forced us to really look into ourselves and what each of us brings to the table.”
For many of the participants, it’s not just the carefully planned-out exercises and the leadership coaching that’s helpful. It’s the abrupt break from the daily routine, in a beautiful place that gives them the time and space to think. Ignat particularly valued the group’s “phenomenal” dinner up at Allyn’s Lodge, where after a difficult day’s work of intense thought and evaluation, they could relax and eat a meal together on the mountain, in front of a fire, before skiing or riding in the cabin cat back down to Clay Brook. As Darius Paduch, the director of sexual health and medicine in the urology department at Weill Cornell Medical College, told me about his experience this past January, “As a leader I knew I needed to change, but it’s difficult to leave on Friday and come back on Monday changed. Taking these four days away taught me a lot of new ideas, and helped me see how others perceive me. It was the best money and time I’ve spent in a long while.”
A selection of activities for corporate groups, on the mountain and in the Valley.
Golf outing on Sugarbush’s eighteen-hole Robert Trent Jones Sr.–designed course.
Disc golf on the mountain, either on the super-easy nine-hole course in the base area (new in 2017), on the eighteen-hole course at the base, or on the more challenging nine-hole course at the top of Gadd Peak (new in 2017).
Team-building and leadership programs at EQnimity—working with horses as a way to improve collaboration and understand the power of nonverbal communication.
Guided cross-country skiing, on groomed trails at Blueberry Lake or Ole’s, or through the backcountry.
Cooperative cooking classes, either through Sugarbush or at The Kitchen at The Store.
Group downhill skiing or riding lessons, and organized downhill ski races.
Tennis tournament organized through New England Tennis Holidays.
Yoga class on the deck of Allyn’s Lodge or by the pool at Clay Brook.
Guided hike on the Long Trail, which runs along Sugarbush’s ridgeline.
Working on survival skills on a guided hike in the backcountry.
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