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The late 1980s were a scary time to be enrolled at Chicago Booth. Students had left jobs to attend what they considered one of the best, if not the best, business school in the country. They planned to move on to big corporate careers, many of them in finance. Then, on October 19, 1987—what came to be known as Black Monday—the stock market recorded its biggest single-day drop in history, losing 22.6 percent of its value, $500 billion. The following October, BusinessWeek (now Bloomberg Businessweek) came out with a survey ranking Booth as No. 11 among business schools, not even in the top 10. The school’s curriculum got a D and its professors got a C.

“We were really stressed,” said Bruce Rigal, ’89, senior advisory consultant for Booth on the future of financial services in London. After Black Monday, “we weren’t sure whether Wall Street would still exist when we graduated,” he said. “And then the BusinessWeek survey came out. It was a tough period.”

Harry L. Davis, Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor and deputy dean at the time, reached out to Luis Miranda, ’89, who was active in the Business Students Association, asking for some suggestions for faculty from the student body. Miranda, Rigal and their classmates did what anxious grad students often do: they went to a nearby bar. Ten students met at Jimmy’s. “It had to be Jimmy’s,” said Miranda, who is currently chairman at the Centre for Civil Society, a think tank based in New Delhi. “There was a lot of beer and a lot of brainstorming, very open-ended.”

Over drinks, the students discussed how they had chosen Chicago instead of another top business school such as Harvard largely because of the flexibility. At Booth, there were no required courses at the time. “If we had had to take the same courses with the same people, eat the same food like they did at Harvard, we would never have come,” Miranda said. However, they also noted a distinct lack of a sense of community, an absence of any unified student experience. “You might meet someone the first quarter and never see them again,” Miranda said.

They also observed some shortcomings in the curriculum. “We knew intuitively that there was something missing from what we were being taught,” Rigal said. “Not that the professors weren’t brilliant, but we needed a bigger structure around leadership, integrity, ethics.”

And of course, in true competitive Chicago fashion, they badly wanted to raise that BusinessWeek ranking.

The university had rolled itself up into a defensive ball after the survey. “‘Who reads BusinessWeek anyway?’ That was the feeling,” Rigal said. However, not everyone at Booth shared that sentiment, particularly Davis, who had approached the students for their input knowing that the results could not be ignored. The students sat down with Davis after the night at Jimmy’s and decided to convene a larger group for an off-site meeting.

In January 1989, Davis sponsored a retreat for a group of 50 to 60 students. They gave up the last weekend of their winter break to spend a frigid two days at a conference center in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. “We were 25,” Rigal said. “We could have gone to Wisconsin to drink beer and go to concerts but we were having an impact. The university was a pretty cold place. The place needed a soul.”

Miranda, a frequent quoter of the dictum derived from Gandhi to “be the change you want to see in the world,” was Rigal’s roommate. “Gandhi put it more eloquently, but I always say if something’s wrong, stop bitching about it. Fix it,” Miranda said.

“Luis spent all his time trying to change the school and none of his time studying or trying to find a job,” laughed Rigal.

The retreat group included a multidisciplinary group of professors and guests—economists, sociologists, ethicists, public policy experts, and lawyers. Role-playing, business and personal challenges, team-building exercises, and experiential learning instead of lectures—these elements began to gel into what eventually became today’s Leadership Effectiveness and Development (LEAD) program.

“We weren’t trying to reinvent anything,” Rigal said, “because there was nothing to reinvent. It wasn’t just leadership. It was all the soft skills we knew we needed but weren’t being taught in our finance courses.”

The idea that second-year students would design and conduct the course for first-year students each year also grew out of that weekend. “The faculty committee had to vote on the LEAD program and the vote was unanimous,” Rigal said. “If it weren’t for Harry, that wouldn’t have happened. If it weren’t for him, the school would rank in the top 20 but not the top 5.” Miranda as well credits Davis. “Harry created LEAD,” Miranda said. “We gave him inputs that helped in its creation.” 

At the home of data-driven decision making, the proof was in the next BusinessWeek ranking. The school jumped to No. 4 overall, and to No. 1 among graduates. Students attributed the change to LEAD, and BusinessWeek agreed, calling the LEAD “experiment” a “huge success” that had “transformed the school.”

Twenty years later, in 2009, Rigal and Miranda joined many of the original group of LEAD students from the class of 1989 in a reunion organized by Booth. A group of current students conducted a LEAD class for the 1989 alumni, as well as for members of the class of 1984. Rigal and Miranda got to see how the “soul” they discovered in Wisconsin continues to thrive.

Booth “taught us to see things differently, to find solutions, to go against the grain and change things when they don’t work,” Miranda said. “A lot of that comes from LEAD. For me, it was a lot more important than classes on capital asset pricing.”