TECH TALK: Crucible Experiences: Leaders Learn

Carol Hymowitz wrote about pivotal situations in the lives of leaders in the Wall Street Journal (August 27, 2002):

Leadership advice is easy to find these days: workshops, conferences and private coaching sessions, often for a hefty price, on how to make the leap from executive to leader.

Yet those who have proved their ability to inspire rarely say they were guided by formal instruction. Instead, they point to life experiences that were pivotal in helping them recognize a capacity to make things happen and to get others behind them.

Many of these people show some qualities of young children: curiosity, boundless energy to put into practice what they learn, and a willingness to pick themselves up and keep going when they fall.

Warren Bennis, founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, and Robert Thomas, senior research fellow of Accenture’s Institute for Strategic Change in Cambridge, Mass., believe all leaders have undergone at least one crucible experience that unleashed their abilities and taught them who they were.

The two professors studied 43 leaders — half of them 70 or older and half 35 and younger — for their book “Geeks and Geezers”. Their transformational experiences varied from being mentored, to climbing a mountain, to losing an election, but ultimately proved more important than the person’s education, intelligence or birth order.

“Sometimes it is an event, sometimes it is a relationship … sometimes joyous, sometimes tragic … but it’s always a powerful process of learning and adaption,” they write. “It is both an opportunity and a test.”

Bob Rich Jr., president and CEO of Rich Products, a Buffalo maker of food products, says his crucible experience came right after he graduated from college, when his father gave him the chance to launch a subsidiary of the family-run company in Canada. “I was 22 years old and at the age when I was convinced that my father knew very little,” he recalls ruefully. “But I soon found out otherwise. Here I was thrown into the breach with a million-dollar budget and responsibility for building a new plant, and I knew nothing.”

He began seeking his father’s advice, and soon discovered he was a wise business adviser. “We became very close through that process,” he says.

The experience also taught him to be more tolerant and respectful of others and not to make glib assumptions. Placed so early in his career in a leadership role, he has always sought the counsel of employees throughout his company, he says.

In the context of leadership, Robert Thomas writes that crucible refers to an experiential dimension in the lives of all the leaders we interviewed: an intense, transformational experience that set them on the road to where they are now. For these leaders, the crucible served as a sort of ordeal or test. Surviving the test was an entry or initiation into the life of leadershipTrue leaders create meaning out of difficult events or relationships, while others may be defeated or even devastated by them. Leaders come out of these experiences with something usefuleven a plan of action. Through the crucible, they acquire new insights, new skills and new qualities of mind or character that make it possible to leap to a new, higher level.

Tomorrow: Four Types

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.