June 10, 2024

Unlocking the future of leadership: Haskayne Wilderness Retreat celebrates 20 years

Innovative course in heart of Rocky Mountains embeds Indigenous ways of knowing and sustainability teachings to cultivate tomorrow's leaders
A group of people gathered around a campfire
Haskayne students participate in the Haskayne Wilderness Retreat course in the Rocky Mountains. Marnie Burkhart, for the Haskayne School of Business

As the world faces unprecedented challenges — from climate change and political tensions to economic downturns and the rising cost of living — a new era of leadership is emerging. Today’s leaders need to embrace holistic, forward-looking approaches to problem-solving, welcome diverse perspectives, adopt ethical stewardship and embody values of empathy, resilience, agility and humility. 

Twenty years ago, the Haskayne School of Business recognized the urgent need for a profound shift in leadership. In response, the school launched the Haskayne Wilderness Retreat course, which later became a marquee course of the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business and led to the creation of a portfolio of programs known as the Haskayne Adventure Leadership

This year, the Haskayne Wilderness Retreat proudly celebrates two decades of innovation in leadership education, transforming the lives of over a thousand graduates.

Experiential learning approach to leadership education

Contrary to its name’s lighthearted, rugged connotations, the Haskayne Wilderness Retreat is a dynamic and immersive experience designed to forge the leaders of tomorrow. It offers MBA and undergraduate business students transformative learning rooted in nature-based, experiential education. 

The retreat uniquely incorporates sustainability, Indigenous ways of knowing, ecological awareness and personal development into its curriculum. By exploring leadership topics within the broader context of sustainability, students clarify their core values, sense of purpose and commitment to service as leaders. 

Over its two decades in practice, the Haskayne Wilderness Retreat has become a cornerstone educational offering at the business school — making it one of the few Canadian universities to integrate this unique experiential learning format. 

“These are strange and dangerous times. Our technological capacity to shape the world has brought extraordinary benefits and freedoms — and it has led to multiple unintended and profoundly unsustainable social and ecological consequences,” says Julian Norris, associate professor and course instructor for the Haskayne Wilderness Retreat. 

“Conventional leadership approaches need to evolve if we are to build a flourishing future together. As educators, we have a responsibility to help future leaders cultivate not only the skills and knowledge needed to thrive and lead in this volatile landscape but also the deeper capabilities upon which they rest, qualities like wisdom, humility, compassion, curiosity, courage, authenticity and selflessness. 

“Through a unique blend of Indigenous and Western perspectives and pedagogies, our students learn to see the world more clearly and navigate uncertainty more skilfully. This holistic approach prepares leaders to make their most meaningful contribution to the world and guide us toward a more sustainable and equitable future.”

An Indigenous man leads an exercise

Haskayne students participate in the Haskayne Wilderness Retreat course in the Rocky Mountains.

Marnie Burkhart, for the Haskayne School of Business

Course described as life-changing experience

Rooted in experiential learning, this one-of-a-kind program engages students through a diverse array of activities, from invigorating land-based learning and reflective practices to personal growth challenges and team-building exercises. Students delve into cross-cultural learning, gaining beneficial insights from various fields including sustainable development, systems thinking, organizational management, outdoor leadership and ecopsychology. 

It is also shaped by the generosity and wisdom of Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers for local Treaty Seven communities. Students consistently describe the course as a life-changing experience that influences their leadership skills and perspectives for years to come.

“My experience with the Wilderness Retreat 20 years ago was an essential part of my personal and professional development,” says Christine Gillies, MBA’05, 2004 Haskayne Wilderness Retreat graduate and chief product and marketing officer, Blackline Safety. 

“The retreat exposed me to invaluable Indigenous cultural practices, such as listening with Elders, sharing in a circle and embracing reconciliation. These experiences taught me lessons in community-building, empathy and resilience that I draw on to this day.

“The principles I learned from Indigenous wisdom taught me to lead with compassion, understand diverse perspectives and consider a sustainable future. By integrating these values into our leadership approaches, we can build more resilient and thriving communities.”

The Wilderness Retreat follows a one-week block class format with the undergraduate course typically offered in the first week of July and the MBA-level course held in the last two weeks of July in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The undergraduate course is hosted at the BGI Institute at the Barrier Lake Field Station in Kananaskis, while this year’s MBA courses are hosted at the Cross River Education and Retreat Centre — a 35-minute drive from Radium Hot Springs, B.C. 

“The Haskayne Adventure Leadership programming stands out as one of the most unique leadership programs offered by business schools across the country,” says Dean Gina Grandy, Haskayne School of Business. “Even after 20 years, the Wilderness Retreat remains novel, leveraging Calgary’s ideal location for place-based learning in a way that few other schools can match. It is a transformative learning experience that is second to none.”

A man stands on a mountain side

Late Haskayne professor David Lertzman at the Wilderness Retreat course.

Marnie Burkhart, for the Haskayne School of Business

Wilderness retreat carries on late professor David Lertzman’s legacy and vision

Created and spearheaded for many years by the beloved Haskayne professor, Dr. David Lertzman, PhD, the Haskayne Wilderness Retreat has grown in popularity — with the course often filling up immediately after registration opens. 

Lertzman strongly believed sustainability is unlikely to be achieved without the participation and leadership of Indigenous Peoples, which is why a key feature of the course is the Indigenous guides and Knowledge Keepers on the leadership team who engage with students throughout the week. Lertzman’s vision for the course is still prevalent today, with course instructors dedicated to embedding his values and perspectives into the curriculum and learnings.

“The Haskayne Wilderness Retreat stands out as an unequivocal highlight of my educational experience,” says Libin Joseph, MBA’25, 2023 Haskayne Wilderness Retreat graduate and human resources business partner, City of Calgary. 

“This course diverged from the traditional academic path, immersing us in an environment that was both unconventional and profoundly enriching. The retreat challenged us to embrace discomfort, catalyzing personal and leadership development in ways I had never encountered before. Surrounded by nature, I learned crucial lessons in resilience, teamwork and adaptability. 

“Dr. David Lertzman’s vision facilitated through Julian Norris continues to inspire, shaping both my professional endeavours and personal growth beyond measure.”

Haskayne’s growth in Adventure Leadership educational programming can largely be attributed to generous donors and supporters like Calgary business leader Hal Kvisle, MBA’82, who contributed a $3 million gift in 2016. This donation enabled the creation of the Hal Kvisle Leadership Adventure Education Fund, which has expanded Haskayne’s leadership education opportunities over the past eight years. 

“In my career in Alberta’s energy sector, I have dealt with both difficult operating challenges and lofty corporate strategies — I’ve learned that real-world experience is enormously helpful in developing successful leadership capabilities for today’s complex world,” says Kvisle, who is director and chairman, ARC Resources Ltd.

“As a long-standing supporter and donor to Haskayne’s Adventure Leadership programming, including the Haskayne Wilderness Retreat, I’ve seen the transformative impact of exposing students to real-life, high-intensity scenarios. It is in courses like the Wilderness Retreat that students hone the leadership and decision-making skills that are essential in today’s complex business and societal environment. I am delighted that Haskayne Adventure Leadership has become such a successful and desirable program!”

As Haskayne invests in cultivating business education that bridges workplace needs, experiential learning will continue to be a growing school priority. Experiential learning, as strongly demonstrated through the rise in demand for courses like the Wilderness Retreat, not only gives students real-world experience but also allows them to develop new critical skills that are essential to adapting to an increasingly entrepreneurial economy — and provide employers with the talent needed to propel their organizations and industries forward. 

Learn more about the Haskayne Adventure Leadership programming.

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