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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.
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.
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.
Paradoxically, few leaders make the most of these experiences. Indeed, if experience were money, there would be an enormous amount left on the table.
To harness the power of crucibles, managers need to recognize two points:
Overcoming the Taboo
Managers often frown on the discussion of nonwork experiences, particularly those dealing with adversity, in formal work settings. 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.
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 people 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.
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.
The Next Generation
Top managers bear responsibility for developing more leaders quickly. And senior leaders should be focused on cultivating immediate successors at least two generations beyond them. 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.
Robert J. Thomas 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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