Leadership retreats: finding a sense of inspired purpose

Sometimes the very best business education is not about informing, but about liberating what's already there. RSM’s MBA leadership retreats are helping participants discover the power that can come from the simple act of re-connecting with yourself.

Story by Rebecca Morris


One thing leadership experts agree on: strong leadership starts with knowing yourself. Great leaders know their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses with the skills of those around them. Those leadership qualities of confidence, self-belief and purpose? They all spring from the same deep well: knowledge of who they are, where they are going, and how they are going to get there.

Given the importance of this quality, it is surprising how few of us have it. ‘Most of what we do in the business world is about getting things done,’ explains David Bond, an executive leadership coach and adjunct faculty member at RSM. ‘In the process we can lose track of who we are, what we value and what our real purpose is.’


Back to the basics

RSM's two MBA leadership retreats aim to change that. While introspection and self-discovery have long been important aspects of RSM's MBA Personal Leadership Development, these electives aim to bring self-awareness to a whole new level. Learning is stripped back to the basics. No smart boards, laptops, or complex leadership theorem: just a group of 20 or so MBAs engaged in mindfulness, solitude, and storytelling against the sun-burnt backdrop of Catalunya in Spain, or the Karoo in South Africa.

‘To navigate a world defined by VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) you need your own inner compass to steer you,’ says David. ‘And that is what these electives are about.’

Dr Daan Stam, associate professor of innovation management and academic director of the MBA programme, describes the new electives as life changers: ‘These are the moments when people change professions or start a business; when they realise who they want to be and come into their own as people and as leaders.’


Too busy to reflect

When Marijke Bakker, an Executive MBA alumna signed up for the week-long MBA leadership retreat in South Africa in 2015, she had just completed two of the most intense years of her life: working full-time first at ProRail and later at Bombardier Transportation, while studying for her EMBA. She was full of inspiration and new ideas, but wanted time to think and reflect.

‘During an MBA, participants get a lot of new information in a very short amount of time,’ says Daan. ‘In normal life people don't have the time to stop and reflect. We thought, “let's give them the opportunity to do that” – to put all the pieces together at what is a major transition point in their lives.’

MBA alumni are also invited to take part in the retreats. While their careers are established, many are ready to revisit goals and prepare for the next phase of their career. This was the motive for alumnus Michel Welters, from the MBA Class of '92, who took part in the Catalunya elective. ‘I had been busy managing teams and companies for 16 years,’ he says. ‘Being a leader is first and foremost about who you are as a person, and there were things I had been considering for the past six months that I needed to address.’


Out of the classroom

Star-gazing from the silent plains of the Karoo in South Africa might seem an unlikely place to develop skills that could make you stand out in the boardroom. But the space here is key, says David, who is the facilitator of the South African leadership retreat in the Bergplaas Nature Reserve. ‘The metaphor I use from Eastern philosophy is that you can’t see clearly if you keep stirring the muddy water,’ he says. ‘You must pause and let the mud settle. That means taking participants out of their daily lives to a space where they can slow down; where there is no internet, no email, only open spaces and nature.’

Slowing down and becoming mindful is the first part of the process, along with developing trusting relationships with other members of the group. Over the days, reflection becomes deeper. The intention, says David, is for people to recognise that they carry a lot of their own wisdom inside themselves: ‘Most people already know how they want to live their lives but have been distracted by other things.’


Visible changes

Participants spend time writing in journals, walking in nature, and reflecting in silence. Exercises expose them to different leadership styles, so they can identify which most resemble their own. Storytelling is another important technique, says David, which helps participants ‘recognise the narratives that have been shaping their thinking and then gives them the power to re-craft those stories.’

Participant Michel found an immense power in the sharing aspect of the Catalunya retreat. ‘Every day we would share personal things and after a while you become an open book. There is something very healing about this – you learn to accept yourself. You also learn trust, which is the number one rule when you work in teams: trusting someone enough to open up and be authentic.’

While it might sound like a utopia of relaxation, the experience can be confrontational. ‘It was very powerful. Very intense,’ says Michel. ‘All these exercises make you confront yourself: you see what you like and what you don't like. But I saw visible changes in people. It was incredible to see.’


Reconnecting with ourselves

Every person benefits from the experience in different ways, says David, but there are certain shared elements across the group. One of the most consistent is a stronger sense of confidence. ‘People can act out roles in the workplace but there is a different kind of confidence that comes from being in touch with the heart: it is a real sense of “I can be true to myself”,’ he says.

‘Once we start making choices consciously instead of unconsciously, we feel a sense of being in control, and of purpose, which imbues us with confidence,’ explains Daan.

Marijke, who quit her job and started as a freelance project manager after the retreat, says: ‘It was during the retreat that I found the confidence to do this. Your perspective changes. I realised that the moments in my life I am most proud of have usually involved something I feared. Now I view stressful situations as opportunities for growth.’

‘Certain things have an immediate impact on you – others are a work in progress,’ says Michel. ‘I gained clarity on what I stand for. I had already sold my company and the retreat helped me decide on my new career. I know how much impact I can have by sharing personal experiences, and how I can adapt my communication and leadership style to different people.’

The personal growth that stems from this kind of experience, says Michel, is what can make all the difference in an individual's management career. ‘Soft skill development is the most important aspect of your leadership development,’ he says. ‘When someone is not performing, it is most often to do with something on a personal level that is holding them back. This is a way of overcoming these obstacles.’


Finding a purpose

The goal of these retreats is not to turn MBAs into pioneers of social change or philanthropy. Yet most participants come to the realisation that their life's purpose is about more than making money or high-tailing the corporate ladder, says Daan. ‘Many students say, “I thought I came to RSM to get a better job; now I realise that, actually, I want to make a difference to the world!”’

‘The perspective that comes with getting away from the material world often includes realisations of simple things such as that they would like spend more time with their family, or that what is important to them is actually making a contribution to the common good,’ says David.

For Marijke, this came to the fore during her time on the retreat: ‘I realised with much greater clarity that I want to make a difference to the world. I used to think this required grand gestures. Now I can see how I can make positive changes in small ways, like by supporting my colleagues in their growth. And I can see it for my personal and professional life.’

Discovering that one is harbouring a desire to make a difference in the world is not a surprising outcome for Daan: ‘What gets people inspired and excited is not money but purpose: having an impact, changing the world. These are the things people realise when they reflect on what matters to them. Money is important, but what matters more is how they can get a more fulfilling life. This is part of what we want to achieve as a business school – to steer participants towards a career that will bring them fulfilment: a life with a purpose.’


This article was first published in RSM Outlook summer 2017 – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

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Daan Stam