Crucibles of leadership

If you want a dictionary definition, try this one:

a place, time or situation characterized by the confluence of powerful intellectual, social, economic or political forces; a severe test of patience or belief; a vessel for melting material at high temperatures.

The concept of leadership crucibles was developed by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas just over 10 years ago, in their book, Geeks and Geezers.

The Geeks in the title were leaders, mostly under 35 at the time of the book’s publication while the Geezers were over 70 – two distinct generations who had grown up in very different eras. Bennis and Thomas noted some clear differences between the two generations of leaders – the impact of era. They found that the Geeks were more ambitious, were more concerned to find balance in life, and were less interested in ‘heroes’.

(The study is already over ten years old – it would be interesting to explore similar themes now).

Whatever the differences produced by the impact of era, Bennis and Thomas were struck by similarities between the groups, not least what they came to refer to as a crucible experience. All the leaders in their research had gone through at least one intense, transforming experience.

The nature of crucibles can vary greatly. One of the leaders in the study had spent 16 years in prison, on charges of being a spy. At the same time, a crucible could take the form of a mentoring relationship.

Here is some of what Bennis and Thomas say about crucibles:

  • the term is elastic and is defined by the person who undergoes the transformation.
  • some crucibles are sought out – people look for challenges; other crucibles come looking (the difference between emigration and exile).
  • crucibles are places for essential questions to be asked (who am I? how should I relate to the world?).
  • they are places of reflection
  • they are places where one transcends self-regard
  • they are places of choice
  • the test is often gruelling
  • there is a risk of failure
  • there is always a prize

Crucibles are, above all, places or experiences from which one extracts meaning, meaning that leads to new definitions of self and new competencies that better prepare one for the next crucible.

Key to emerging successfully from a crucible, is what Bennis and Thomas call ‘adaptive capacity’: they suggest that it is ‘the essential competence of leaders’.

More on that – and more – tomorrow!

Meantime – especially if you are a leader – what is your experience of crucibles? In what way has one or more crucible played a part in shaping you as a leader?

The crucible is a dividing line, a turning point, and those who have gone through it feel that they are different from the way they were before.


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