The Crisis UMich Students Are Dealing With Today Brings A New Meaning to March Madness


There comes a time in the life of every business leader when they are faced with a tough situation and difficult choices.

For a group of 120 Michigan undergraduate students, that time is today – and the situation is even more out of hand than they realize. They’re truly facing a crisis of impossible proportions.

It’s part of the Sanger Leadership Center’s annual Leadership Crisis Challenge, a 24-hour simulation exercise that puts University of Michigan students into teams to tackle a complicated, ever-evolving crisis situation. As the crisis spins out of control, the students will need to rely on their skills, lessons, and good judgment to manage a situation that puts their company’s reputation, government relationships, and even lives at stake.

Previous challenges have seen students manage everything from factory fires that killed thousands of low-wage workers in struggling economies to faulty shipping vessels that irreversibly damaged vital waterways.

This year’s challenge remains a secret until the event officially kicks off on Thursday, March 28 at 5 p.m.

For the first time this year, U-M students will be joined during the Crisis Challenge by students from other universities. Thanks to two new exchange programs in development, 4 students from HEC Paris, and 15 students from the Sanger Leadership Initiative at DePauw University will be joining U-M undergrads on teams during the 2019 challenge. The winners of this year’s challenge will have the opportunity to visit France next year to participate in the Crisis Challenge at HEC Paris.

Stay tuned for updates as the challenge unfolds.


Product Launch Goes Awry

The challenge this year has been a secret - until now:

Just now, 30 teams of students learned they were now members of an executive team at AguaClara Global Beverages, a multinational, billion-dollar company with operations in Europe and the United States.

AguaClara just released its first self-branded beverage product into the U.S. market but the celebration won’t last long.

Several residents of Minot, North Dakota, including six infants, have been hospitalized with severe flu-like symptoms that experts have traced back to a significant spike in the levels of nitrate coming from the region’s water aquifer — the same water that feeds AguaClara’s pumping facility.

A pending class-action lawsuit implicates AguaClara in the contamination of the aquifer, and company board members are demanding a response from teams as early as tomorrow morning.

“The board will be looking to you for answer to very difficulty questions,” a note from the Board Chairman said. “What should be our immediate response?”

Update - 6:50PM

Breaking News

This news report was just released detailing the situation in Minot, North Dakota.

Update - 7:05PM

Decisions Decisions

Following a brief investigation into potential sources of the contamination, a note from the Head Facilities Technician at AguaClara outlined three potential options teams could follow in their response strategies.

  1. Stop pumping water from the aquifer
  2. Continue pumping as usual
  3. Pump at a reduced rate

There are many considerations -- reputational, financial, legal, and ethical -- associated with each. Do teams take their colleague up on one of those options? Or are there other, more appropriate responses to this ongoing crisis? How they answer that question will be important to their board presentations tomorrow morning. More to come.

Update - 7:15PM


Teams just learned that the heir to their company has been the subject of a Tuffington Post exposé detailing his overly-lavish lifestyle. In the face of crisis, is it really appropriate to have a high-level company representative “living it up” in the press?  

From the report:

“Sexy international playboy Fernando Botella, heir to the AguaClara Global Beverages ownership, was spotted partying outside a club in Barcelona. When asked about the company’s water contamination crisis in Minot, North Dakota, Botella hoisted his glass of Cristal, swallowed its contents and stumbled into a waiting Mercedes.”

Not good news for our executives.

Read the report

Update - 7:26PM

Bad News Keeps Coming

Oh boy. When it rains, it pours.

Just minutes after learning that their company heir is taking heat in the global press for enjoying the finer things in life, teams have also heard reports that one of the hospitalized infants has died from poisoning that could be linked to their company’s operations.

An update from a Minot news source reports that a baby has died from the symptoms related to the nitrate poisoning.

Update - 8:45PM

Ambushed by the Press

Over the course of an hour, student teams are accosted by a demanding set of reporters. Everyone wants to know: How will AguaClara take action? Will it take responsibility for the death of this child? Will it compensate impacted residents, visitors, and businesses?

Update - 9:00PM

Final Countdown

Executive teams have just one hour left to turn their crisis response reports in before they present to their board of directors tomorrow morning.

Hopefully nothing too crazy happens between now and then…

Check back tomorrow morning for updates.

Board Members

Several local and national business leaders have come to Ross to play the role of AguaClara board members for this event. Among them are:

  • Marci Carris, VP at Sprint; 
  • Eltaneice Venable Bolden, Global Industrial Hygiene Manager for General Motors;
  • LuAnn Chrumka, Former VP of Information Technology for AT&T;
  • Howard Handler, President at h2 Advisors;
  • Mark Petroff, President and CEO of OneMagnify;
  • Sherwin Prior, Founder and Managing Partner at Blue Victor Capital LLC;
  • Richard Siegel, Managing Director at Barclays; and,
  • Many more
Update - 9:00AM

Good Morning!

Executive Teams are now preparing for their presentations in front of AguaClara’s Board of Directors. Tough questions will arise about yesterday’s events, and teams are expected to have well-reasoned, well-informed, and well-articulated responses to the financial, ethical, operational, and societal issues their company now faces.

And they have to perform calm under the pressure. No big deal.

Update - 10:00AM

More News Is ... Still Bad News

Just before executive teams submitted their reports to the board of directors last night, they got word of yet another breaking story in this crisis: Allegations of AguaClara conspiring with the Governor.

A new report just released states:

“The latest rumors imply that the governor may have been involved in the Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to approve AguaClara for the highest possible pumping permit limit … [and he] may have steered enormous bottled water contracts towards AguaClara” in exchange for the company’s financial support of his 2014 election campaign.

With just hours to go before a live scheduled press conference, these new allegations are sure to throw a wrench in student teams’ plans.

Update - 3:00PM

Press Conference

Following their board presentations, student teams received feedback from communication coaches and the business executives in the room. The board members will decide which student teams had the best response plans to this impossible situation, and those teams will advance to a final round press conference.

Executive team members from finalist teams will be answering questions from real members of the press. The winner of the 2019 Leadership Crisis Challenge will come down to how well these remaining teams navigate the high pressure and bright lights of a real, live press conference.

Update - 5:00PM


Congratulations to Team SÏP - winners of the 2019 Leadership Crisis Challenge!

Team SÏP consists of students from Michigan Ross, the Ford School of Public Policy, and Michigan Engineering. They are Brian Chu, Michael Chen, Boyang Yu, Adi Mannari, Matthew Lougheed, Ashton Smith, Stavroula Kyriazis, and Brooke Bacigal. 

Follow @MichiganRoss and @UmichSanger on Twitter and Instagram for up-to-the-minute updates.

The Leadership Crisis Challenge is developed and led by the Sanger Leadership Center with generous support from PNC Bank and the GM Foundation. The challenge is an opt-in program for U-M students that is offered twice during the academic year. This includes a January challenge for MBA, MSCM, MAcc, MM, and other U-M graduate students; and a March challenge for BBA, business minor, and other U-M undergraduate students.

Learn more about how you can participate