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Ivey has run two bootcamps in Ontario for undergrads to learn leadership, including one at CFB Meaford, above, in 2014. A third is planned for April of 2016.

Gabe Ramos/Ivey Business School

It was just after 1:30 a.m. and 22-year-old Mikayla Johnson, a student at the Ivey Business School, had finally dozed off after a long day.

But when the clock struck 3, with heavy rain falling outside, Ms. Johnson and 35 of her fellow students were aggressively awoken by combat veterans in military garb.

No, Ivey wasn't under siege. The students were at Canadian Forces Base Meaford in Ontario as part of Ivey's Leadership Under Fire course – an elective the London, Ont., school offers business students to test and sharpen their command of commanding.

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Ms. Johnson, now in her fifth and final year at Ivey, was part of the second cohort of the elective that's going into its third year. She says despite the physical and mental toll of the four-day boot camp, she wouldn't have traded the experience for anything.

"It's not a typical business elective you could take. I saw a lot of long-term value in it and thought I could learn a lot about leadership through experiences," she explains. "To be able to experience leadership in a military sense was fascinating to me."

During the four days in August – an unseasonably cold four days, she remembers – Ms. Johnson and her classmates went through a rigorous schedule that mimicked basic military training. She says their group had to complete such tasks as building a raft or shelter out of minimal supplies. They were also put through physical training, including long runs while wearing full military gear and face paint.

A weekend in the woods this course was not.

Leadership Under Fire is the brainchild of Larry Stevenson, the founding chief executive officer of Chapters and current chairman of SNC-Lavalin Group. Mr. Stevenson, who trained as a paratrooper in the Canadian Forces, also holds an MBA from Harvard University.

With his military background, Mr. Stevenson felt when he began his MBA that the leadership courses would be the ones he would do quite well at. As it turned out, he struggled.

"Most of the subjects like finance or marketing I knew very little about. I knew how to jump out of planes," he reflects. "When I went there [to Harvard] and I looked at the curriculum, I thought it was going to be tough for me, but the one course I thought I'd ace was leadership.

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"Business schools are not actually very good at leadership and the reason is: I don't think it's possible to teach leadership in the classroom."

According to Mr. Stevenson, many business schools lack meaningful hands-on leadership opportunities. Leadership Under Fire tries to fill that gap.

"You can teach principles of leadership and ethics in the classroom, but the art of being a good leader only comes from putting someone in a leadership situation, having them do whatever it is they were meant to be the leader of, and then evaluating them, debriefing them, coaching them, and having them do it all over again," Mr. Stevenson says.

Instructors from Ivey at the University of Western Ontario and Canadian combat veterans taught the first two iterations of the course. For the third wave, in April of 2016, just the veterans will teach.

The list of instructors includes David Quick, the retired Lieutenant Colonel and Commanding Officer for the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, and holder of a Star of Military Valour. He also happens to be completing his executive MBA at Ivey.

"We try to recreate a situation that is both physically and physiologically demanding," Mr. Stevenson says. "[The students] are being coached by combat veterans who have obviously been in much more serious situations – it's not just the rain they're worrying about, it's rain and someone trying to kill you."

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Gerard Seijts, the executive director of Ivey's Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute of Leadership, says there were some strong similarities between what the school wanted to do to teach leadership and what Mr. Stevenson thought would make a good course.

"There is a long and rich history of leadership in the military," explains Mr. Seijts. "Military leadership is quite different than leadership in business, but there are certain principles that are generalizable like when it comes to things like accountability, collaboration, etc. That was important."

"It was a natural match. We didn't want to do this with someone who wasn't at the leading edge," continues Mr. Stevenson.

Mr. Seijts says his colleagues briefed a number of Ivey students on the course, but as with any new course – especially one that wasn't mandatory – students didn't really know how they'd be evaluated or whom the instructors would be.

Ivey had to sell the elective really hard, according to Mr. Seijts, but he smiles as he reflects on what happened when the course was finally made available to students.

"We sent a lengthy e-mail, explained that the [online] portal to register would open at noon, and we would take the first 40 students," he says. "Two minutes in, we had over 90 students registered for the course."

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Mr. Seijts says students were curious about the course and thought it would be a unique opportunity for off-site learning.

"They were more surprised when they arrived at the bases," he explains. "They thought this was going to be a glorified camping trip, and obviously that was not the case."

Mr. Stevenson made sure that the military veterans were sent to Ivey to brief the second group of students to make sure they were more prepared.

"It was not meant to be summer camp," Mr. Stevenson states. "The combat veterans said: 'Don't show up in sandals and Bermuda shorts.' It's not that kind of thing."

Mr. Seijts says that although some students struggled while completing the four-day course, it was helpful for them to learn more about themselves. Students were often soaking wet, hungry, irritated by their colleagues and deprived of sleep. But, he says, this is exactly what they wanted.

"If everything goes well, you don't learn anything about your character," he says. "Situations like this really magnified your strengths and weaknesses. That's why it was such an interesting setting."

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For Ms. Johnson, those early wakeup calls and the uncomfortable four days were worth it.

"I saw a lot about myself and about others, and how you want to think about you in the future. It's not only about your career, but in your life, too," Ms. Johnson says. "It goes beyond what you'll learn in a classroom."

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