Management Tools - Life's Hard Lessons

By Robert J. Thomas Jun 13, 2008

HR Magazine, June 2008 Recognizing and discussing defining moments in both your professional life and personal life makes you a better leader.

Leaders don't become leaders through talent alone. No matter how intellectually skilled, emotionally gifted or economically advantaged, no one is prepared for all the uncertainty and newness an organization can throw at them. Leaders must adapt and learn to fulfill what is expected of them and what they expect of themselves. Albert Einstein put it best when he said, "Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it."

Experience fuels that lifelong effort, according to accomplished leaders. Meaningful and important leadership lessons are imparted through crucibles. These critical events and experiences -- times of testing and trial, of failure more often than of grand success -- grab a person by the lapels and demand to know, "What do you stand for?" and "What are you going to do?" Crucibles have no regard for age, gender, generation, nationality, talent or charisma. They ask that leaders step up and be someone or do something they have never been or done before.

The timing of crucibles is hard to predict, and the events themselves are idiosyncratic. They can take place at work or off the job and at any age. Business school case studies may feature solitary decision-makers gazing at an oncoming rush of storm clouds and pondering make-or-break choices, but when people describe their personal defining moments, they're more likely to talk about something that occurred on a much smaller and more personally meaningful stage, during off hours and unscheduled time.

Defining Moments

This emphasis on crucible experiences may make it sound as though organizations have little or no role to play in leadership development. In fact, organizations have a huge impact on the kinds of experiences that shape leaders. They may not manufacture crucibles, but they routinely set rich challenges for individuals in stretch assignments, foreign rotations and crises that demand resolutions. Moreover, the workplace serves as the setting for many crucible experiences described by leaders. Paradoxically, few organizations make the most of these experiences. Indeed, if experience were money, there would be an enormous amount left on the table.

Missing is the sense that leadership development requires a compact between individuals and organizations. It's not an individual's responsibility to go it alone and figure out how to be a leader. Neither should managers assume that they can throw assignments at people with the intention that leaders will emerge.

Too often, that's essentially the approach organizations take. People are often sent on assignment with the hope that, while accomplishing the task set before them, they will learn wisdom, insight and improved judgment. Organizations establish rotational programs with the goals of developing general management skills and cross-functional thinking in potential leaders. Managers are elevated into the executive ranks under the assumption that they will intuit how to shift from a focus on problem-solving to a focus on vision and strategy. Such hopes, goals and assumptions do not constitute wise investment strategy.

What can managers do to foster a compact with their future leaders to share responsibility for leadership development? For one thing, they can harness the power of crucibles by helping future leaders use these events as learning opportunities. To harness the power of crucibles, managers need to recognize two points:

  • Although many crucibles do not occur on the job, they nonetheless become an important part of a leader's development.
  • Regardless of where they take place, crucibles generally have deep personal impact. They stir up strong emotions; harnessing their power is not a simple undertaking.

Overcoming the Taboo

Managers often frown on the discussion of nonwork experiences, particularly those dealing with adversity, in formal work settings. In fact, the chief leadership officer of a pharmaceutical company told me that it was taboo to introduce such experiences into leadership development efforts. In my experience, people at all levels in an organization are eager to talk about powerful personal experiences. Sometimes those conversations take place in twos and threes but just as often occur among larger groups.

For example, I've heard senior executives talk about the challenges of being the children of divorce at an early age and what the experience taught them about learning to be independent while wanting to depend on others. Others have been open about a failure that challenged them to take responsibility because others depended on them. These events and feelings were not generally known among the group; once they were, they emboldened the teller and encouraged others to explore their own crucibles for lessons.

People are willing to share and explore so-called taboo topics. Obviously, for reasons of decorum, and sometimes of law, some experiences should be off-limits. But when potential leaders understand that the intent behind such talk is not to vilify or embarrass the teller but to explore how men and women learn to lead, off-the-job experiences become legitimate parts of the leadership development process.

For this reason, leaders who want to initiate conversations about learning from experience should begin with a crucible story of their own. Coaches and mentors should encourage the people they work with to take up an avocation that will help them learn and force them to become part of new communities, ones in which the mentees can gain comfort in being beginners with nothing to hide and nothing to claim other than a desire to learn.

Emotional Rescue

Keep in mind that crucible experiences often set loose or, in the retelling, resurrect strong feelings: relief, frustration, anger, betrayal, panic, exhilaration, sorrow. All are very strong emotions and certainly not the sort one associates with the even-tempered or stoic behaviors typically encountered in the modern workplace.

If deep learning from crucibles becomes an important part of a leader's journey, and if strong emotions commonly accompany deep learning, then strong emotions will likely be part of leadership development. If managers pursue an experience-based approach to leadership development, they must find ways to deal with emotions. There are no easy solutions. This requires helping individuals recognize their own crucible situations, practicing the learnable dimensions of resilience, and helping managers and professionals responsible for leadership development coach and mentor aspiring leaders through emotionally turbulent times.

What, then, can leaders do to harness the power of experience? They should strive to create experiences that can be mined for leadership development and leverage the ones that occur naturally. Naturally occurring crucibles typically fall into three categories: territory, reversal and suspension.

At work, new territory can be encountered in a first supervisory role or in a foreign assignment; in life, it is being the new kid on the block or getting lost in the woods or in a new city. A reversal at work could come in the form of a bad financial quarter, the failure of a project or even the death of a colleague. At home, experiences such as a divorce or financial setback qualify. A suspension in work terms might be anything from a sabbatical to a temporary layoff; beyond the office, it might take the form of a leave of absence to go back to school or long-term unemployment, whether voluntary or not.

To make the most of a new-territory experience, individuals need to develop deep insights into their motivations, aspirations, values and learning styles. To learn from a reversal, people should have a high degree of comfort with self-observation and self-regulation and the abilities to cope with adversity and exercise empathy. To effectively mine suspensions, potential leaders need insight into how to renew themselves physically, intellectually and spiritually; they should effectively communicate to others what they have learned as part of a mentoring process.

Optimally, professionals responsible for leadership development would understand aspects of leadership technique and perspective enhanced by crucibles. Easier said than done, of course. But having the aspiring leader involve a partner in the exercise can help. In fact, involving partners, sponsors and champions is critical to the success of an experience-based approach to leadership development. In today's talent-focused organizations, these people by nature will have deep personal and financial stakes in growing leaders.

The Next Generation

Top managers bear responsibility for developing more leaders more quickly. And senior leaders should be focused on cultivating immediate successors at least two generations beyond them. In addition to investing in the infrastructure necessary to support leaders at all levels and championing experience-based leadership development, top managers must take personal responsibility for recruiting and mentoring future leaders, whether they do it intuitively or programmatically. It's a challenging task in the face of day-to-day operations, but who besides top managers could do the job?

Cultivating next-generation leaders requires leaders to be connoisseurs of talent and to identify and court employees who have gifts the organization needs and that are not part of their own skill set. In an economy dependent on ideas, there is no room for a leader threatened by the greatness of others.

Galileo once said, "You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself." When leaders are open to listening to the personal experiences of their rising stars, they can help men and women find the potential buried within and become true leaders.

The author is executive director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance Business in Boston. His most recent book is Crucibles of Leadership (Harvard Business School Press, 2008).

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