Off the grid, on a 500-acre ranch an hour-and-a-half from Tampa, for 48 hours over two chilly nights with no cell phones or electricity or showers, sleeping in tents and cooking meals over an open fire, the Jesuit High School students engaged in the Leadership Retreat did just that – become better leaders.
“It was a great experience – I am mentally tired and physically tired,” said Spencer Williams ’20, moments after they returned on Tuesday (Jan. 16). “You had to put in an effort to eat, to stay warm, to make sure everyone in the group could eat, to make sure everyone was taken care of, to complete all the obstacles, to work together with your team, to be a leader, to help others when they were leading.
“It was intense.”
The 27 students – 24 sophomores and 3 juniors – took part in the school’s third experiential Leadership Retreat on Jan. 14-16 at Pallardy Ranch in Myakka City. Coordinated by Jesuit’s Director of Student Activities, Mike Scicchitano ’01, and led by COR Expeditions, a Catholic Outdoor Leadership Program of Wyoming Catholic College (wyomingcatholic.org/cor-expeditions), Jesuit has offered the experiential retreats each of the past three semesters.
After arriving the afternoon of Jan. 14, the students learned about the characteristics of leaders. They self-evaluated and were evaluated by their peers in small groups to determine what leadership traits they possessed, such as communicative, persistent, dependable, conscientious, and composed. Thirteen traits were identified, and three had to be chosen as strengths, three as weaknesses for every classmate evaluated.
“It was honest,” Williams said. “The goal was determine your leadership style and become comfortable in it.”
Each student was identified as one of four styles: Driver, Spontaneous Motivator, Architect/Analyst, and Relationship Expert. They explored ways to improve within their leadership style, and to develop traits in another style that could complement their primary style.
They also learned about slacklines, compasses and other outdoor tools that would comprise a big part of the mental and physical challenges for each team on the second day. Spread far and wide over the 500 acres, in the woods and in sparse clearings, were dozens of team-oriented, vexing challenges (many can be viewed in the photo slideshow below) that required leadership, and mental and physical agility, to complete successfully.
“The obstacles made you work as a team,” Williams said. “And if you didn’t have an organized leader, it would not work. You would fail.”
Divided into three teams of nine (St. Jude, St. Isaac Jogues, and St. Joseph), each one led by a COR guide, the teams set off separately for five hours during the afternoon of the second day to accomplish each challenge. A different team leader or leaders took charge at each new challenge, and the COR guide evaluated/graded each team at every challenge, on key elements such as how well they planned and communicated, how the leader(s) performed, and how they executed, adjusted, and (hopefully) completed the challenge.
“The COR guys really helped us to learn about who we are as leaders and how to develop ourselves,” said Sean Doherty ’20. “It was interesting to learn about and see the different leadership styles, and then have actual application of the styles, to see how different people lead in different ways.”
After each challenge, there was a group discussion to reflect on their performance. The students reviewed what had transpired, what went well, what didn’t, what should have been done differently, what could be improved, etc. Among the most difficult leadership challenges was one that involved six team members being blindfolded.
“There was some major problem solving,” said Lex Capitano ’20. “Day 1, they tell you how to do things. Day 2, you do it all on your own with your team.”
Once each review session was complete, it was a dash to the next challenge.
“It wasn’t fake feedback like you sometimes get in other places in your life – it was real feedback,” Williams said. “It had to be, so that your team could learn from mistakes because your next obstacle was coming right up.”
“The feedback was great,” Capitano said. “It helped you a lot, helped you to grow.”
Capitano was part of the winning team, St. Joseph, which performed very well on one of the signature obstacles, the 10.5-foot wall deep in the woods. Getting the last person over was the most difficult part, as there was no one left to help hoist them. Capitano and James Bencivenga ’19, propped up by fully extended teammates on the back side of the wall, reached over the top and down, grabbing that last teammate, Mason Stichter ’20, and helping pull him over.
“It felt like a movie – we had to pull Mason up the cliff fast to save him,” Capitano said. “Our team figured out a way to do it.”
After a second night cooking dinner over one of the three fires in the makeshift campground – hot dogs and cheeseburgers on the second night, after sausage and potatoes the first – they packed everything up and returned to Tampa.
“It was the best retreat I’ve been on,” Capitano said.
View a photo slideshow below from the Leadership Retreat:
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