Underdog stories are fan favorites for a reason. Watching a group exceed expectations to rise to the top can feel magical. They remind the eternal dreamer in us that anything is possible and demand the realist to reconsider their frame for reality. As newly crowned 2018 International Champions of the Collegiate Leadership Competition (CLC), the M.A. and Lila Self Leadership Academy from Illinois Tech celebrated their underdog story through reflection on all the hard work their team put forth over the 2018 spring semester.
The Leadership Academy is led by Executive Director George M. Langlois, Ph.D. who strives to ensure that the Academy perpetually achieves the goal set forth by founding donors M.A. and Lila Self nearly 20 years ago: to develop the leadership skills of all students at Illinois Tech through an authentic servant leadership model, experiential leadership activities, and mentorship and guidance from Academy leadership. The Academy’s CLC team was coached by Program Manager Rodney Vallejo (LinkedIn) and Assistant Program Manager Meghan Pickett and comprised of the following Leadership Academy Scholars:
- San Lae Lae Cho – Fifth-Year, Architecture
- Brianna Galvan – Third-Year, Civil Engineering
- Chris Hui – Third-Year, Mechanical Engineering
- Hamza Khan – Third Year, Electrical Engineering
- Merjem Mededovic – Fourth-Year, Biomedical Engineering
- Adi Sudhan – Third-Year, Electrical Engineering
- Hamze “Leo” Sukkar – Fifth-Year, Computer Engineering and Engineering Management
- Diana Wu – Second-Year, Chemical Engineering
- Chris Zurowski – Fourth-Year, Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics
In June of 2017, the Leadership Academy registered to compete in the CLC for the first time ever. A non-profit educational leadership initiative developed by Scott Allen, Ph.D. and directed by Bela Krizanovic, the CLC was created to address a gap in the way leadership was commonly taught. Specifically, Scott recognized that athletes, engineers, musicians, etc. all had opportunities to refine and sharpen their skills through practice and competitions. However, this “practice space” for student leaders was missing. With leadership, professors teach and lecture on the topic but rarely provided student leaders an opportunity to develop or showcase their leadership skills. From this realization, Scott, Bela, and other stakeholders came together to create CLC in 2015 to give student leaders from universities around the country an opportunity to display their leadership traits, skills, and abilities through team competition.
Starting in the spring semester of 2018, the team spent one and a half hours every week from January through March together in practice learning the CLC leadership terms and concepts, engaging in team-based strategy and problem-solving activities, and facing challenges designed to stretch the boundaries of their leadership skills. The team even had the opportunity to try out official CLC competition activities from the 2017 competition towards the end of their practice season. However, they struggled through the 12 weeks of practice and did not even successfully complete one team-based challenge over the course of those three months. When the team started practice in January, their expectations to perform well at the competition were high but were reframed by March to be much lower. Instead of believing they would win—as they thought in January—the team simply wanted to put forth a good showing at the competition. However, while their expectations on winning changed, their main focus of having fun, learning more about leadership, and getting to know their team members better was always kept in the forefront. While their team results did not show in practice their team cohesion grew stronger with every practice and became the foundation for their story. However, faced with the approaching competition, the pressure of wanting to perform well, and updates of other teams’ practice victories, nerves ran high.
The team competed in the Great Lakes region from April 6-7 in Cleveland against 12 teams from eight other universities from the midwestern United States and southeastern Canada. The competition was held at John Carroll University and once there, the team noticed a few differences between themselves and the other teams. Not only were they the most ethnically diverse team, their STEM backgrounds also stood in stark contrast to the business, communication, and psychology majors of their fellow competitors. Additionally, some of the teams had competed before and were confident in their potential and abilities. Motivated by these differences and the doubts that accompanied them, the team felt intrinsically inspired to show the value of diversity and represent for Illinois Tech, the Leadership Academy, and all STEM majors.
On the night before the competition, the team met one last time and it was during this final meeting that the team’s strong cohesion became explicitly evident for each team member. They recognized and highlighted the strengths of each other so they knew who to lean on in certain novel situations. They reflected on what worked and what did not work over the past 12 weeks of practice to better understand how to approach competition day as a whole. They relied on each other to ensure that all CLC terms and concepts were covered. They strategized how to approach each challenge faced in terms of ideation, creation, and evaluation. They understood the importance of communication and teamwork. They knew that while they may not win, they would compete hard and have fun. They knew that this journey had already strengthened their bonds of friendship between each other and that they had lessons learned that they could apply and utilize in their careers. They knew that regardless of outcome, they experienced the ups and downs together as a team and that they would support each other no matter what. They were a mix of campus leaders that at its foundation, knew how to work collaboratively with each other. While they were not aware of it at the time, they were already demonstrating the skills needed to win the competition—all they had to do was have fun and show it. And they certainly did.
The team emerged from the regional competition as Great Lakes Champions, receiving 1,113 points out of a possible 1,200 points, outpacing the next closest team by over 170 points. Hurdling over every obstacle right out of the gates, the team celebrated their first team-based activity success by completing their first challenge and rode that momentum all the way to the finish line. In fact, they became the first team in CLC history to complete all six challenges with a perfect product score—scoring was based on process points (how well the team demonstrated the CLC leadership model and worked together to solve the problems) and product points (how fast the team completed the challenges and/or if the challenge was completed at all). Paired with their strong process scores, the team took home two trophies commemorating their win as Great Lakes Product Champions and Great Lakes Regional Champions.
The team then patiently waited for the results from the other four regional competitions (Ohio Valley, New England, Mid-Atlantic, Heartland) to see how their overall score matched up with other regional champions—the team with the highest score across all regions would be named International Champions. Then, in late April, the coaches of the team received a congratulatory call from CLC leadership, detailing that they were official champions for 2018.
This team emerged as the top scoring team across all five regions and 79 teams from 55 universities from the United States and Canada. They were honored by President Alan Cramb at a private dinner and again at an end-of-year celebration that commemorated all successes of the Leadership Academy from the previous academic year. Team members said they were thrilled to emerge as overall winners—some stating that CLC was their best memory from being in the Leadership Academy—but were just as proud to have won as a team, alongside their fellow Scholars and friends. Additionally, the two coaches stated that they were so proud to witness the development and growth of the team from novices in January to international champions in April. They also both said that going through this underdog journey with the team was one of the best experiences of their careers.
As an institution grounded in innovation and the struggle between what is real and what is possible, Illinois Tech is no stranger to overcoming the odds. The Illinois Tech CLC team represented this tenacity, creativity, and camaraderie on an international stage. Their success is an achievement for the campus as a whole and a testament to the leadership and ingenuity developed here.
*The team’s trophies are planned to be housed in the Kaplan Innovation Center upon its completion.*