Article written by Johanna Sorrentino, SHULU EMBA Student.
Seven Executive MBA students laid on the ground in the middle of a forest in Luxembourg tasked with doing…absolutely nothing. It’s not the average assignment for a graduate business degree—long hours poring over financial statements and management best practices are more typical.
And while these students have experienced plenty of that in their program at Sacred Heart University Luxembourg (SHULU), on this particular Saturday they received a different type of lesson. Because, as it turns out, this is not your average EMBA program.
Laying in the forest, they were learning to access one of the most effective sources of professional and personal resilience available: Nature.
Escorting the students through this forest experience was Julie Schadeck, a certified guide from the L’Université dans la Nature. She took the students on a tour of what happens to the senses in a natural environment, quoting literature, scientific research, and the most convincing data set of all—personal experience.
“It was simple stuff I was not doing for 20 years. I do gardening, but you don’t go to the forest to smell earth. It was a trip to childhood with all these smells,” said SHULU EMBA student Raffaella Vaccaroli.
Smell was the sense that Vaccaroli said she connected with most, and she especially remembered the reference to dirt as “the new Prozac”. Indeed, Schadeck provided scientific research to suggest that the smell of certain soil bacteria can activate serotonin-releasing neurons in the brain. “I am very scientific, so the fact that she was explaining and building up with literature made me believe in the power of this activity,” Vaccaroli said.
To demonstrate the sense of hearing, Schadeck brought forth scientific research comparing the superior hearing ability of people living in natural environments with those living in cities. She also explained that complete silence is nearly impossible, and even natural silence—without manmade sounds—is only found in a few places places around the world.
For the sense of sight, Schadeck highlighted studies that explained how our brains are more evolved to perceive the level of input seen in nature than in cities, pointing to the repeated patterns found in the ferns that brushed against the student’s legs. “The geometry of the leaves is really meditative,” Vaccaroli said.
Schadeck also offered exercises which invited students to experience the power that nature has on the human body. She demonstrated the power of touch by inviting students to take off their shoes and socks and walk barefoot through the forest.
It was a step out of the comfort zone for SHULU EMBA student Stefano Pozzi Mucelli. “I was thinking about broken glass, and what would happen if I started bleeding in the forest,” he said. Then, he realized that there was an insect walking on his foot, something that would normally bother him, but “it felt natural to have that animal walking on my foot, and I realized how disconnected from nature we are.”
Walking barefoot allowed SHLU EMBA student Abhilash Sharma to reconnect with his own childhood experience back in India. He recalled his grandfather, a doctor, instructing him to walk barefoot in the grass every day for his health. “These are traditional Indian practices which can be seen in the countryside. It looks like we have come too far away from it, but experiences like this help us get back to our roots,” he said.
Vaccaroli said the most challenging exercise for her was finding an area in the forest to be alone and do nothing for ten whole minutes. “At the beginning it was a little uncomfortable. I was a little like, ‘What am I going to do for 10 minutes’.” But in her time “doing nothing”, Vaccaroli she said she realized how calm she felt and how essential this is for concentration and productivity. “It helps you and your stability.”
These students said they walked out of the forest with an appreciation for how nature could bring them and those around them a greater sense of peace and resilience.
And research has shown that resilience is a powerful tool for leaders. Numerous studies have described “grit” a key success factor for leaders and their organizations. As author Dean Becker noted in a 2002 Harvard Business Review article, “More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, its true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.”
Vaccaroli agreed. “You can be a super private equity person, but if you forget this work-life balance part you will have a breakdown.”
For Sharma, the greatest take away was a renewed commitment to pass down the health traditions his grandfather taught him to his daughter. “I would love to do more of that with my daughter. I have made up my mind that if I move into a different house, it will be closer to nature where I can do some gardening activities with my daughter. For weekends, instead of staying at home I must take her out,” he said. “It was an asset what our grandparents provided us. We should treasure it and give us to our new generations.”
Giving personal enrichment opportunities like this to his team members was Pozzi Mucelli’s take away. “If I’m thinking about having a team building day, I’d like to offer it to colleagues so it can give something to them, as well.”
What started as a simple walk in the forest with their fellow students became a unique learning experience—by getting closer to nature, they were actually getting closer to themselves. “This is the kind of experience every professional needs for the right work balance,” Sharma concluded.