Teaching story: What you can learn about management and leadership when lost in the desert

Professor of Organisation and Governance Sébastien Mena and 23 Master of Public Policy students study the essentials of management.

“Students and professors sometimes go on trips by plane. And even if it’s rare, the chance that your plane might crash over a desert exists,” Professor of Organisation and Governance Sébastien Mena tells his 23 first-year Master of Public Policy students to welcome them to class. “That’s why today, we will do the Desert Survival Exercise,” he smiles. In previous weeks, his class “Management & Leadership” has been discussing case studies on different management aspects such as working culture and organisational structure. This week, it’s time for something new. “I want you to imagine your plane just crashed and you have 15 items with you to survive the next hours or even days. In groups, please rank them according to how useful they are for this mission.” With a look of surprise and wonder, the students wrinkle their foreheads about curious objects such as a cosmetic mirror and a bottle of vodka, but also supposedly more useful items such as a compass and a compress kit with gauze. 

Surviving in the desert with a compass and cosmetic mirror

What the students don’t know yet is that the Desert Survival Exercise is a popular experiment used by company leaders and department heads when trying to strengthen team spirit. The exercise helps unclose hidden dynamics of a group or team – the subject of today’s class. But before the students discuss these dynamics from a more analytical perspective, they now find themselves discussing what they need to survive in the desert in small groups. With wit and excitement, they are arguing over the most beneficial ranking. “We should get rid of the pistol. In movies, this is the first thing that goes wrong, when a group has a pistol,” says Deepak*, a first-year student from India. “Also, our discussion on the usefulness of sunglasses has become more of an Instagram thing at this point,” he jokes, to the group’s laughter. The students in the class come from diverse backgrounds: while some have interned in the Bundestag, others have already worked for several years as lawyers or as consultants to the public administration. No matter their area, the concentration Governance and Leadership in the Master of Public Policy will come in handy for them. While his group is still laughing, Deepak is now moderating the discussion. His team has been stuck debating the usefulness of things like alcohol (a useful disinfectant or a way to intoxicate yourself?) and a big parachute (useful to provide shade or too heavy to carry?).

The desert: A microcosm of organisational life?

Back in the classroom and before providing the solution to the experiment, Professor Mena draws the students’ attention to a more analytical level. “What we have experienced today is a microcosm for an organisational setting,” Mena explains. “Organisational and social psychological research has shown that the social relationships in a team or group in the workplace have a major impact on work beyond the nature of the task or the structure of the group. These relationships influence work efficiency and the acceptance of the outcome of a decision.” 

When asked about their experience during the desert experiment, the students realise they headed into the tasks right away. Although everyone got to voice their ideas, certain voices soon became more prominent. “A common mistake is that groups don’t agree on a strategy before they rank the items,” Mena says. “But depending on which strategy you choose, the results are very different. Do you want to stay at the plane and wait for help? Do you try to search for the next village? All of these things make the objects discussed more or less useful,” he adds. A further common mistake is that teams usually don’t start by looking at the skills within the group. In the case of Deepak’s team, one fellow student did survival training during his time in the army. Another student was a scout in his youth. 

"For me, it’s so important to teach students about team dynamics, organisational culture and leadership skills as all of them will have to deal with the social side of work in the future. Whether they manage a civil society, business or political organisation – leadership and management skills need to be grounded in knowledge about management, leadership and organisations," Mena says. “Something that can easily get overseen in the buzz of everyday work life – almost like in the Kalahari Desert.”

Practice-oriented teaching across all master’s programmes

The Desert Survival Exercise and the case studies from the real world are only two examples for the innovative teaching that the Hertie School offers. Be it in the public policy, the international affairs or the data science master’s programme that the university offers, the Hertie School’s practical orientation equips future leaders with the skills they need to thrive in their professional careers.

At the end of the class, the Professor of Organisation and Governance discloses the secret of the 15 objects. So, which items are the most useful if your plane crashes? You’ll have to enrol in Professor Mena’s course to find out.

Interested in learning more about the Master of Public Policy and its Governance and Leadership concentration? Visit the programme page!

*Student's name changed

More about our expert