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Leadership Development the Southwest Way - Camping Isn't Just for Kids

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

A peek into MIT's Camp Culture, an experiential capstone for one of Southwest Airlines' high-potential leadership development programs we call MIT Level II.

If this is the first article you're reading about Southwest Airlines' MIT Level II program, and context would help, check out the first article in the series.

Before working at Southwest, I hadn't experienced a program like Camp Culture. In fact, when hired, I had no idea the program involved camping and remember my team responding with some trepidation to the dubious look on my face when they mentioned the camp we would host in the fall. I'm not much of a camper… glamping, ok. Camping, not so much. But Camp Culture - it is a blast! Worth the hard work, u-hauling and mosquito bites.

Camp Culture for MIT is one of those cool things about the program. It's the secret finale that everyone knows occurs but they don’t know what occurs during camp. There's pinky swearing involved. So while I'd like to tell you about Camp Culture, I can't really tell you about Camp Culture. I too have committed the pinky swear - many times.

But I can share with you the value of this type of experiential learning. Michael Hyatt shares on his blog, "I love reading books on leadership and attending seminars. But as helpful as these are, they are not the same as doing something together with a team. There are some things in life that are best learned by doing." Camp Culture provides just this type of engagement.

Getting away from the office and into uncharted territory allows participants to unplug and engage in a way they aren't able to in a classroom. While we strive to make the classroom a safe, comfortable place to learn over a week, it's still in the office and it's still a contrived setting.

Lake Carlton at Robber's Cave Park, OK

Professors Christopher G. Myers and Mike Doyle at Johns Hopkins share this in an Harvard Business Review article: "[Being in a complex, unfamiliar experience] unlocks opportunities for people to step up in new ways and reveal untapped aptitudes and attitudes that can bolster their leadership. Even for experienced adventurers, the ambiguity inherent in an expedition (e.g., dealing with unpredictable weather and other conditions) forces people to stretch themselves as they work with their team."

The demand for this type of curricula is growing, and in doing a bit of research for this article I learned about the Association for Business Simulation & Experiential Learning (ABSEL) via an article by William Judge with the University of Tennessee. In this article, which shares a three-year debrief of an outdoor-based experiential learning program hosted for EMBA students, he closes with "we remain encouraged and convinced that adventure-based learning has enormous untapped potential, but because there aren’t many templates for this approach we must all experiment more and share our experiences on the lessons learned. Finally, evaluative studies on the impact of outdoor-based experiential learning training sessions is fundamentally important for making sure that the time spent is educational as well as fun." Thank you for sharing your informative studies, Mr. Judge.

The learning process we've taken with MIT II's Camp Culture is similar to Judge's experience of test and improve + have fun.

MIT II's Camp Culture is a capstone experience crowning the six-week program. The goal of the experience is to:

  • Practice and promote Living the Southwest Way - we've talked about that in this article

  • Recap, review and apply learning from the MIT II class

  • Practice not taking yourself too seriously (have some FUN!)

  • Continue team building and gelling as an MIT team

  • Celebrate the MIT II experience

Through a series of funny scenarios and somewhat challenging activities, Camp Culture reminds Southwest leaders what makes our culture successful and clarifies their role in promoting and perpetuating it. Participants are challenged to keep employees motivated and committed to Southwest's mission and core values. And it's just plane fun (see what I did there?).

Without voiding my pinky swear, here are two ways we were able to pull off an endeavor like Camp Culture in the early days:

  • We used homegrown activities, like junkyard golf, scavenger hunts, marshmallow gun shooting ranges and so forth

  • We prepared meals onsite; one Team took dinner duty to cook and serve the other participants (it's Servant Leadership, y'all)

The resources needed for a homegrown program like Camp Culture were intensive, so we evolved the curriculum and identified a partner who could host us at an executive retreat center and most recently at a dude ranch. The activities and facility have evolved, but the purpose and heart of the program are still centered on the five objectives shared above.

We also use these last days in the program to recap key lessons and revisit a leadership self-assessment to note and discuss changes to leadership styles from the beginning of the program.

Come, sit by the fire and let's roast marshmallows. I'd love to hear your ideas.

Sign up below and tell us how you might introduce experiential-based learning into your talent programs? Escape rooms or downtown scavenger hunts are two options. No need to get fancy - get leaders out of their day-to-day context, put them into a new situation and target reinforcing key leadership expectations or behaviors.

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