May 15, 2020 – Economic Progress

WMU Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy encourages students to "lean into" COVID crisis


Dr. Doug Lepisto and Dr. Derrick McIver, who run Western Michigan University’s Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy, embraced online teaching methods long before the coronavirus pandemic forced students off campus.

So when the 100 individuals enrolled in their Leadership and Business Strategy program scattered, the professors’ dilemma was not how to learn to interact digitally—it was how, and whether, to allow students to finish their two large-scale projects for the semester. In the Center’s spirit of learning by doing, completing these assignments would require significant interaction, both with business leaders and their customers.

Was that task possible during a global pandemic? And was the nature of the projects even still relevant to the students’ professional partners?

Students had been working with two local small businesses: a media company and another firm that specializes in providing employee health benefits, to create long-term strategies for growth. The projects “were about to enter a phase of deep customer research” when COVID-19 hit, Lepisto told the WMU News, and with so many small businesses shutting their doors temporarily, or facing permanent extinction, it seemed the projects as originally conceived “would not bring the most value to the companies or their customers at this time.”

Instead of abandoning the coursework for the year and simply resorting to teaching business strategy online, Lepisto and McIver leaned into the crisis. They decided they would not shield their students from it and instead would use it to expose them to the realities of being an entrepreneur, including the uncertainty and hardship, while trying to help local businesses as they struggled to survive.

To start, that meant having students consult with firms remotely. Student Cooper Frost explained these first steps to WMU News. “When the COVID-19 outbreak became widespread in the U.S., we were asked to change our focus to the new, and rapidly changing, needs of the clients,” Frost said, “To do this, we had to see the world through the eyes of the respective company leaders.”

After just a short time consulting, students decided to launch a video project to tell stories of organizations creating value during crisis. These short segments not only examined how small businesses were coping during the crisis, they explained how local firms were working to meet their communities’ greatest needs. One company that was featured, Journeyman Distillery, shifted from making spirits to hand sanitizer, for example.

The students made a total of 50 videos. Lepisto told WOOD-TV in Michigan, “ put unbelievable hours into this. They were creative, improvisational, entrepreneurial. It’s great to see students get after it and work into crisis instead of backing away. And that’s what our students did — they leaned into crisis to help other people.”

Rhino Media, one of the firms that had been working with students earlier in the semester on a long-term growth strategy, recently chose three of the best stories and pledged to work with the winning students to help them improve their production skills. Rhino also will continue working with the small businesses featured in the winning videos.

Lepisto and McIver believe the experience has conditioned their students to be resilient and to demonstrate leadership during crisis. It also has amplified their commitment to changing the way college and universities teach their students.

“The last day of class there were some tears shed. Students bonded with their teams and they felt empowered to help. The course gave their lives and their learning purpose during an incredibly difficult time,” said Lepisto. “Now we need to continue asking ourselves what comes next. How do we give students more opportunities to learn by doing, and to create mutual benefit in their own hometowns?”

Part of what is next is the launch of a new podcast, The Jungle, that explores leadership and strategy in crisis. The Center will release 12 podcast episodes, including conversations with distinguished guests like the CEOs of Haworth, Stryker, Kellogg, and Consumers Energy. Click here to follow the podcast and here to read more about the Charles Koch Foundation’s support of the Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy.