Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas write that the heart of the leadership crucible: the ability to extract wisdom from experience. Based on their interviews with leaders, they identified four major types of crucibles:
Mentoring Relationships: Mentors have long exerted dramatic influence on those they mentor, of course, particularly on young people. But two critical elements appeared in virtually every mentoring relationship described in our interviews. First, protgs attracted mentors; there was something compelling about them that made them approachable and interesting. Second, mentors were recruitable; they were open to caring for a particular protg and willing to share valuable insight without any expectations of reward for their efforts.
Enforced Reflection: This crucible has at its core an opportunity for both exploration and reflection. College has the potential to be such a crucible, particularly as it affords a young person the time and space to explore other possible selves and lifestyles. The same can be said for more regimented settings that emphasize introspection, like yoga retreats, martial arts training and seminaries.
Insertion Into Foreign Territory: Most people find themselves operating in foreign, sometimes hostile, territory at some point in their lives. However, the leaders we interviewed demonstrated a remarkable capacity not only to survive those tough experiences but to extract profound insights from them. Others might be overwhelmed by the newness, the confusion, the deluge of sensations encountered in foreign territory. But these leaders embraced the disorientation and wove it into their own experiential tapestry. More important, they continued to seek out new foreign territories, whether a new geography, culture, business, organizational role or idea.
Disruption and Loss: Personal loss, particularly of an associate, has the capacity to destabilize. The loss of a parent (particularly when it requires a person to take on family responsibility or live independently at an early age), loss of a sibling or close friend (which often occurs during war-time), bankruptcy, or failure in an important assignment or undertaking (including a run for public office) can stimulate a search for greater understanding of self, of relationships and of larger webs of affiliation. All these events carry the potential to catalyze a search for meaning and develop a far keener ability to extract insights from experience.
For Mahatma Gandhi, the crucible experience was his stay in South Africa. For Nelson Mandela, it was the many long years he spent in prison. For John Kerry, it was the Vietnam War. As I think back on my life, there are at least three experiences which I can think helped change me. One was a brief incident at school, the second was my first semester at IIT, and the third was a two-year period of business failure after my return to India in 1992. Each incident, in its own way, made an impact. While time can diminish memories of the period, it cannot take away the reality of the occurrence. In the next two columns, I will share my experiences and how these events made a difference to me. Perhaps, you too can think about yours.
Tomorrow: My Crucibles
TECH TALK Crucible Experiences+T