Crucible of Leadership

Crucible of Leadership

Paper details:

On a Leadership experience in the past on discrimination, work ethics, cultural differences, racism, and crucibles.
THE CRUCIBLE EXPERIENCE

Crucibles force leaders into deep self-reflec
tion,
where they examine their values, question
their assumptions, and hone their judgment.
Example:
Sidney Harman—co-founder of audio com-
ponents company Harman Kardon and
president of an experimental college en-
couraging student-driven education—
enc
ountered his crucible when “all hell
broke loose” in one of his factories. After
managers postponed a scheduled break
because the buzzer didn’t sound, workers
r
ebelled. “I don’t work for no buzzer,” one
proclaimed.
To
Harman, this refusal to bow to manage-
ment’s senseless rule suggested a surpris-
ing link between student-driven education
and business. Pioneering participative man-
agement, Harman transformed his plant
into a kind of campus, offering classes and
encouraging dissent. He considers the re-
bellion the formative event in his career—
the moment he became a true leader.
T
HE MANY SHAPES OF CRUCIBLES
Some crucibles are violent and life-threaten
ing
(encounters with prejudice, illness); others are
more positive, yet profoundly challenging
(such as demanding bosses or mentors).
Whatever the shape, leaders create a narrative
t
elling how they met the challenge and be-
came better for it.
Example:
While working for former Atlanta mayor
Robert F. Maddox, Vernon Jordan endured
r
epeated racial heckling from Maddox.
R
ather than letting Maddox’s sadism de-
stroy him, Jordan interpreted the behavior
as a desperate lashing out by someone
who knew the era of the Old South was
ending. Jordan’s response empowered him
to
become an esteemed lawyer and presi-
dential advisor.
ESSENTIAL LEADERSHIP SKILLS
F
our skills enable leaders to learn from adversity:
1. Engage others in shared meaning.
For
example, Sidney Harman mobilized employ
ees
around a radical new management app r
oach—
amid a factory crisis.
2. A distinctive, compelling voice.
W
ith
wo
r
ds alone, college president Jack Coleman
preempted a violent clash between the foot-
ball team and anti-Vietnam War demonstra-
t
ors threatening to burn the American flag.
C
oleman’s suggestion to the protestors?
Lo
w
er the flag, wash it, then put it back up.
3. Integrity.
Coleman’s values prevailed dur-
ing the emotionally charged face-off between
antiwar demonstrators and irate football players.
4. Adaptive capacity.
This most critical skill
includes the
ability to grasp context
, and
hardi-
ness
. Grasping context requires weighing
many factors (e.g., how different people will
interpret a gesture). Without this quality, lead
ers
can’t connect with constituents.
Hardiness provides the perseverance and
t
oughness needed to remain hopeful despite
disaster. For instance, Michael Klein made mil-
lions in real estate during his teens, lost it all
by
age 20—then built several more busi-
nesses, including transforming a tiny software
company into a Hewlett-Packard acquisition.
HBR A
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L
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Crucibles of Leadership
by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas
harvard business
review •
september 2002
pa
ge 2
C
OPYRIGHT © 2002 HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL PUBLISHING CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Everyone is te
sted by life, but only a few
extract strength and wisdom
from their mo
st trying experience
s. They’re the ones we call leaders.
As
lifelong students of leadership, we are fasci-
nated with the notion of what makes a leader.
Why is it that certain people seem to naturally
inspire confidence, loyalty, and hard work,
while others (who may have just as much vi-
sion and smarts) stumble, again and again? It’s
a timeless question, and there’s no simple an-
s
wer. But we have come to believe it has some-
thing to do with the different ways that people
deal with adversity. Indeed, our recent re-
search has led us to conclude that one of the
most reliable indicators and predictors of true
leadership is an individual’s ability to find
meaning in negative events and to learn from
ev
en the most trying circumstances. Put an
other
way, the skills required to conquer adversity
and emerge stronger and more committed
than ever are the same ones that make for
e
xtr
aordinary leaders.
Ta
ke
Sidney Harman. Thirty-four years ago,
the then-48-year-old businessman was hold-
ing
down two executive positions. He was the
chief executive of Harman Kardon (now Har-
m
an International), the audio components
c
ompany he had cofounded, and he was
ser
vi
ng as president of Friends World College,
now Friends World Program, an experimental
Q
uaker school on Long Island whose essential
philosophy is that students, not their teachers,
are responsible for their education. Juggling
the two jobs, Harman was living what he calls
a “bifurcated life,” changing clothes in his car
and eating lunch as he drove between Harman
Ka
r
don offices and plants and the Friends
W
orld campus. One day while at the college,
he was told his company’s factory in Bolivar,
T
ennessee, was having a crisis.
He immediately rushed to the Bolivar fac-
tory, a facility that was, as Harman now recalls,
“raw, ugly, and, in many ways, demeaning.”
The problem, he found, had erupted in the
p
olish and buff department, where a crew of a
dozen workers, mostly African-Americans, did
the dull, hard work of polishing mirrors and
other parts, often under unhealthy conditions.
The men on the night shift were supposed to
get a coffee break at 10
PM
.
When the buzzer
that announced the workers’ break went on
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the fritz, management arbitrarily decided to
p
ostpone the break for ten minutes, when an-
other buzzer was scheduled to sound. But one
worker, “an old black man with an almost bibli-
c
al name, Noah B. Cross,” had “an epiphany,” as
Harman describes it. “He said, literally, to his
f
ellow workers, ‘I don’t work for no buzzer. The
buzzer works for me. It’s my job to tell me
when it’s ten o’clock. I got me a watch. I’m not
waiting another ten minutes. I’m going on my
c
offee break.’ And all 12 guys took their coffee
break, and, of course, all hell broke loose.”
The worker’s principled rebellion—his re-
fusal to be cowed by management’s senseless
rule—was, in turn, a revelation to Harman:

The technology is there to serve the men, not
the reverse,” he remembers realizing. “I sud-
denly had this awakening that everything I was
doing at the college had appropriate applica-
tions in business.” In the ensuing years, Har-
man revamped the factory and its workings,
turning it into a kind of campus—offering
classes on the premises,
including piano les
sons,
and encouraging the workers to take most of
the responsibility for running their workplace.
Fu
r
ther, he created an environment where
dis
sent was not only tolerated but also encour-
aged. The plant’s lively independent newspa-
pe
r,
the
Bolivar Mirror,
gave workers a creative
and emotional outlet—and they
enthusiasti-
c
ally skewered Harman in its pages.
Harman had, unexpectedly, become a pio-
neer of participative
management, a
movement
that continues to influence the shape of work-
places around the world. The concept wasn’t a
grand idea conceived in the CEO’s office and
imposed on the plant, Harman says. It grew or-
ganically out of his going down to Bolivar to, in
his words, “put out this fire.” Harman’s trans-
f
ormation was, above all, a creative one. He
had connected two seemingly unrelated ideas
and created a radically different approach to
management that recognized both the eco-
nomic and humane benefits of
a more
c
ollegial
workplace. Harman went on to accomplish
f
ar
more during his career. In addition to
f
ounding Harman International, he served as
the deputy secretary
of commerce
under
Jimmy
Ca
r
ter. But he always looked back on the inci-
dent in Bolivar as the formative event in his
professional life, the moment he came into his
own as a leader.
The details of Harman’s story are unique,
but their significance is not. In interviewing
more than 40 top leaders in business and the
public sector over the past three years, we were
surprised to find that all of them—young and
old—were able to point to intense, often trau-
matic, always unplanned experiences that had
transformed them and had become the sources
of their distinctive leadership abilities.
We
c
ame to call the experiences that shape
leaders “crucibles,” after the vessels medieval
alchemists used in their attempts to turn base
metals into gold. For the leaders we inter-
viewed, the crucible experience was a trial and
a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced
them to question who they were and what
mattered to them. It required them to examine
their values, question their assumptions, hone
their judgment. And, invariably, they emerged
from the crucible stronger and more sure of
themselves and their purpose—changed in
some fundamental way.
L
eadership crucibles can take many forms.
Some are violent, life-threatening events. Others
are more prosaic episodes of self-doubt. But
whatever the crucible’s nature, the people we
spoke with were able, like Harman, to create a
narrative around it, a story of how they were
challenged, met the challenge, and became
be
t
ter leaders. As we studied these stories, we
f
ound that they not only told us how indi-
vidual
leaders are shaped but also pointed to
some characteristics that seem common to all
leaders—characteristics that were formed, or
at
least exposed, in the crucible.
L
earning From Difference
A crucible is, by definition, a transformative
e
xperience through which
an individual
c
omes
to a new or an altered sense of identity. It is
perhaps not surprising then that one of the
most common types of crucibles we docu-
mented involves the experience of prejudice.
Being a victim of prejudice is particularly trau-
matic because it forces an individual to con-
front a distorted picture of him- or herself, and
it often unleashes profound feelings of anger,
be
wilderment, and even withdrawal. For all its
trauma, however, the experience of prejudice
is for some a clarifying event. Through it, they
gain a clearer vision of who they are, the role
they play, and their place in the world.
C
onsider, for example, Liz Altman, now a
Motorola vice president, who was transformed
by the year she spent at a Sony camcorder fac-
tory in rural Japan, where she faced both es-
W
arren G. Bennis
is a Distinguished
Pr
ofessor of Business Administration
and the founding chairman of the
L
eadership Institute at the University of
Southern California in Los Angeles. He
is also the author of more than 25
books
on leadership.
Robert J. Thomas
is an
associate partner and senior fellow
with the Accenture Institute for Strategic
Change and the author of
What Ma-
chines Can’t Do
(University of California
Pr
ess, 1994). Bennis and Thomas’s book
Geeks and Geezers
will be published by
Harvard Business School Pr
ess this
month. They are also at work on an
upcoming book,
C
rucibles for Leaders
.
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trangement and sexism. It was, says Altman,
“by far, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” The
fo
r
eign culture—particularly its emphasis on
groups over individuals—was both a shock and
a challenge to a young American woman. It
wasn’t just that she felt lonely in an alien
world. She had to face the daunting prospect
of carving out a place for herself as the only
woman engineer in a plant, and nation, where
women usually serve as low-level assistants
and clerks known as “office ladies.”
Another woman who had come to Japan
under similar circumstances had warned Alt-
man that the only way to
win the men’s
re
spect
was to avoid becoming allied with the office
la
dies. But on her very first morning, when the
b
ell rang for a coffee break, the men headed in
one direction and the women in another—and
the women saved her a place at their table,
while the men ignored her. Instinct told Alt-
man to ignore the warning rather than insult
the women by rebuffing their invitation.
Over the next few days, she continued to
join the women during breaks, a choice that
gave her a comfortable haven from which to
observe the unfamiliar office culture. But it
didn’t take her long to notice that some of the
men spent the break at their desks reading
magazines, and Altman determined that she
c
ould do the same on occasion. Finally, after
paying close attention to the conversations
around her, she learned that several of the
men were interested in mountain biking. Be-
c
ause Altman wanted to buy a mountain bike,
she approached them for advice. Thus, over
time, she established herself as something of a
free agent, sometimes sitting with the women
and other times engaging with the men.
And as it happened, one of the women she’d
sat with on her very first day, the department
secretary, was married to one of the engineers.
The secretary took it upon herself to include
Altman in social gatherings, a turn of events
that probably wouldn’t have occurred if Alt-
man had alienated her female coworkers on
that first day. “Had I just gone to try to break in
with [the men] and not had her as an ally, it
would never have happened,” she says.
Lo
oking back, Altman believes the experi-
ence greatly helped her gain a clearer sense of
her personal strengths and capabilities, prepar-
ing her for other difficult situations. Her ten-
ure in Japan taught her to observe closely and
to avoid jumping to conclusions based on cul-
tural assumptions—invaluable skills in her
current p
osition at Motorola, where she leads
efforts to smooth alliances with other corpo-
ra
te cultures, including those of Motorola’s
different
r
egional operations.
Altman has come to believe that she
wouldn’t
have been as able to do the Motorola job if she
hadn’t lived in a foreign country and experi-
enced the dissonance of cultures:”…even if
yo
u’
re
sitting in the same room, ostensibly
agreeing…unless you understand the frame of
re
fe
r
ence, you’re probably missing a bunch of
what’s going on.” Altman also credits her cruci-
ble with building her confidence—she feels
that she can cope with just about anything that
c
omes her way.
P
eople can feel the stigma of cultural differ-
ences much closer to home, as well. Muriel
(“Mickie”) Siebert, the first woman to own a
seat on the New York Stock Exchange, found
her crucible on the Wall Street of the 1950s
and 1960s, an arena so sexist that she couldn’t
get a job as a stockbroker until she took her
first name off her résumé and substituted a
genderless initial. Other than the secretaries
and the occasional analyst, women were few
and far between. That she was Jewish was an-
other strike against her at a time, she points
out, when most of big business was “not nice”
to either women or Jews. But Siebert wasn’t
broken or defeated. Instead, she emerged
stronger, more focused, and more determined
to change the status quo that excluded her.
When we interviewed Siebert, she described
her way of addressing anti-Semitism—a tech-
nique that quieted the offensive comments of
her peers without destroying the relationships
she needed to do her job effectively. According
to Siebert, at the time it was part of doing busi-
ness to have a few drinks at lunch. She remem-
b
ers, “Give somebody a couple of drinks, and
they would talk about the Jews.” She had a
greeting card she used for those occasions that
went like this:
R
oses are reddish,
Violets are bluish,
In case you don’t know,
I am Jewish.
Siebert would have the card hand-delivered
to the person who had made the anti-Semitic
r
emarks, and on the card she had written, “En-
joyed lunch.” As she recounts, “They got that
ca
rd
in the afternoon, and I never had to take
any of that nonsense again. And I never em-
The skills re
quired to
conquer adversity and
emerge stronger and
more co
mmitted than
ever are the same ones
that make for
extraordinary leaders.
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barrassed anyone, either.” It was because she
was unable to get credit for the business she was
bringing in at any of the large Wall Street firms
that she bought a seat on the New York Stock
Exchange and started working for herself.
In subsequent years, she went on to found
Muriel Siebert & Company (now Siebert Fi-
nancial Corporation) and has dedicated herself
to helping other people avoid some of the diffi-
culties she faced as a young professional. A
prominent advocate for women in business
and a leader in developing financial products
directed at women, she’s also devoted to edu-
ca
ting children about financial opportunities
and responsibility.
We
didn’t interview lawyer and presidential
adviser Vernon Jordan for this article, but he,
too, offers a powerful reminder of how preju-
dice can prove transformational rather than
debilitating. In
V
ernon Can Read! A Memoir
(Public Affairs, 2001), Jordan describes the vi-
cious baiting he was subjected to as a young
man. The man who treated him in this offen-
sive way was his employer, Robert F. Maddox.
Jordan served the racist former mayor of At-
lanta at dinner, in a white jacket, with a napkin
ov
er his arm. He also functioned as Maddox’s
chauffeur. Whenever Maddox could, he would
derisively announce, “Vernon can read!” as if
the literacy of a young African-American were
a source of wonderment.
Subjected to this type of abuse, a lesser man
might have allowed Maddox to destroy him.
But in his memoir, Jordan gives his own inter-
pretation of Maddox’s sadistic heckling, a tale
that empowered Jordan instead of embitter-
ing him. When he looked at Maddox through
the rearview mirror, Jordan did not see a power-
ful member of Georgia’s ruling class. He saw a
desperate anachronism, a person who lashed
out because he knew his time was up. As Jor-
dan writes about Maddox, “His half-mocking,
half-serious comments about my education
were the death rattle of his culture. When he
saw that I was…crafting a life for myself that
would make me a man in…ways he thought of
as being a man, he was deeply unnerved.”
Maddox’s cruelty was the crucible that, con-
sciously or not, Jordan imbued with redemp-
tive meaning. Instead of lashing out or being
paralyzed with hatred, Jordan saw the fall of
the Old South and imagined his own future
freed of the historical shackles of racism. His
ability to organize meaning around a potential
crisis turned it into the crucible around which
his leadership was forged.
Prevailing over Darkness
Some crucible experiences illuminate a hid-
den and suppressed area of the soul. These are
often among the harshest of crucibles, involv-
ing, for instance,
episodes of illness
or vio
lence.
In the case of Sidney Rittenberg, now 79, the
crucible took the form of 16 years of unjust im-
prisonment, in solitary confinement, in Com-
munist China. In 1949 Rittenberg was initially
jailed, without explanation, by former friends
in Chairman Mao Zedong’s government and
spent his first year in total darkness when he
wasn’t being interrogated. (Rittenberg later
learned that his arrest came at the behest of
C
ommunist Party officials in Moscow, who
had wrongly identified him as a CIA agent.)
Thrown into jail, confined to a tiny, pitch-dark
c
ell, Rittenberg did not rail or panic. Instead,
within minutes, he remembered a stanza of
v
erse, four lines recited to him when he was a
small child:
They drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We
drew a circle that took them in!
That bit of verse (adapted from “Outwitted,”
a
po
em by Edwin Markham) was the key to
Rit
t
enberg’s survival. “My God,” he thought,
“there’s my strategy.” He drew the prison
Geeks and Geezers
We didn’t set out to learn about cruci-
bles. Our research for this article and for
our new book,
Geeks and Geezers,
was ac-
tually designed to uncover the ways that
era
influences a leader’s motivation and
aspirations. We interviewed 43 of to-
day’s top leaders in business and the
public sector, limiting our subjects to
p
eople born in or before 1925, or in or
after 1970. To our delight, we learned a
lot about how age and era affect leader-
ship style.
Our geeks and geezers (the affection-
a
te shorthand we eventually used to de-
scribe the two groups) had very different
ideas about paying your dues, work-life
balance, the role of heroes, and more.
But they also shared some striking
similari
ties—among them a love of
learning and strong sense of values.
Most intriguing, though, both our geeks
and our geezers told us again and again
how certain experiences inspired them,
shaped them, and, indeed, taught them
to lead. And so, as the best research
often does, our work turned out to be
e
ven more interesting than we thought
it would be. We continued to explore the
influences of era—our findings are de-
scribed in our book—but at the same
time we probed for stories of these cru-
cible experiences. These are the stories
we share with you here.
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guards into his circle, developing relationships
that would help him adapt to his confinement.
Fluent in Chinese, he persuaded the guards to
deliver him books and, eventually, provide a
c
andle so that he could read. He also decided,
after his first year, to devote himself to improv-
ing his mind—making it more scientific, more
pure, and more dedicated to socialism. He be-
lieved that if he raised his consciousness, his
c
aptors would understand him better. And
when, over time, the years in the dark began to
ta
ke
an intellectual toll on him and he found
his reason faltering, he could still summon
f
airy tales and childhood stories such as
The
Little Engine That Could
and take comfort from
their simple messages.
By contrast, many of Rittenberg’s fellow pris-
oners either lashed out in anger or withdrew.

They tended to go up the wall…They couldn’t
make it. And I think the reason was that they
didn’t understand…that happiness…is not a
function of your circumstances; it’s a function
of your outlook on life.”
Rittenberg’s commitment to his ideals con-
tinued upon his release. His cell door opened
suddenly in 1955, after his first six-year term in
prison. He recounts, “Here was a representa-
tive of the central government telling me that I
had been wronged, that the government was
making a formal apology to me…and that they
would do everything possible to make restitu-
tion.” When his captors offered him money to
start a new life in the United States or to travel
in Europe, Rittenberg declined, choosing in-
stead to stay in China and continue his work
f
or the Communist Party.
And even after a second arrest, which put
him into solitary confinement for ten years as
Reinvention in the Extreme: The Power of Neoteny
All of our interview subjects described their
crucibles as opportunities for reinvention—
for taking stock of their lives and finding
meaning in circumstances many people
would see as daunting and potentially inca-
pacitating. In the extreme, this capacity for
r
einvention comes to resemble eternal
youth—a kind of vigor, openness, and an en-
during capacity for wonder that is the antith-
esis of stereotyped old age.
We borrowed a term from biology—
“neoteny,”
which, according to the
American
Heritage Dictionary,
means “retention of juve-
nile characteristics in the adults of a spe
cies”—
to describe this quality, this delight in life-
long learning, which every leader we inter-
viewed displayed, regardless of age. To a per-
son, they were full of energy, curiosity, and
c
onfidence that the world is a place of won-
ders spread before them like an endless feast.
Ro
be
rt
Galvin, former Motorola chairman
now in his late 70s, spends his weekends
windsurfing. Arthur Levitt, Jr., former SEC
chairman who turned 71 this year, is an avid
Outward Bound trekker. And architect Frank
Gehry is now a 72-year-old ice hockey player.
But it’s not only an affinity for physical activ-
ity that characterizes neoteny—it’s an appe-
tite for learning and self-development, a curi-
osity and passion for life.
To
understand why this quality is so power-
ful in a leader, it might help to take a quick
look at the scientific principle behind it—
neoteny as an evolutionary engine. It is the
winning, puppyish quality of certain ancient
wolves that allowed them to evolve into dogs.
Over thousands of years, humans favored
wolves that were the friendliest, most ap-
proachable, and most curious. Naturally, peo-
ple were most drawn to the wolves least likely
to attack without warning, that readily locked
e
yes with them, and that seemed almost
human in their eager response to people; the
ones, in short, that stayed the most like pup-
pies. Like human infants, they have certain
physical qualities that elicit a nurturing re-
sponse in human adults.
When infants see an adult, they often re-
spond with a smile that begins small and
slowly grows into a radiant grin that makes
the adult feel at center of the universe. Re-
c
ent studies of bonding indicate that nursing
and other intimate interactions with an in-
f
ant cause the mother’s system to be flooded
with oxytocin, a calming, feel-good hormone
that is a powerful antidote to cortisol, the
hormone produced by stress. Oxytocin ap-
p
ears to be the glue that produces bonding.
And the baby’s distinctive look and behaviors
c
ause oxytocin to be released in the fortunate
adult. That appearance—the one that pulls
an involuntary “aaah” out of us whenever we
see a baby—and those oxytocin-inducing
b
ehaviors allow infants to recruit adults to
be
their nurturers, essential if such vulnera-
ble and incompletely developed creatures are
to survive.
The power of neoteny to recruit protectors
and nurturers was vividly illustrated in the
former Soviet Union. Forty years ago, a So-
viet scientist decided to start breeding silver
foxes for neoteny at a Siberian fur farm. The
goal was to create a tamer fox that would go
with less fuss to slaughter than the typical sil-
ver fox. Only the least aggressive, most ap-
proachable animals were bred.
The experiment continued for 40 years,
and today, after 35 generations, the farm is
home to a breed of tame foxes that look and
act more like juvenile foxes and even dogs
than like their wild forebears. The physical
changes in the animals are remarkable (some
have floppy, dog-like ears), but what is truly
stunning is the change neoteny has wrought
in the human response to them. Instead of
t
aking advantage of the fact that these neo-
tenic animals don’t snap and snarl on the
way to their deaths, their human keepers ap-
p
ear to have been recruited by their newly
cute and endearing charges. The keepers and
the foxes appear to have formed close bonds,
so close that the keepers are trying to find
ways to save the animals from slaughter.
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re
t
aliation for his support of open democracy
during the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg did
not allow his spirit to be broken. Instead, he
used his time in prison as an opportunity to
question his belief system—in particular, his
c
ommitment to Marxism and Chairman Mao.
“In that sense, prison emancipated me,” he says.
Rittenberg studied, read,
wrote,
and
thought,
and he learned something about himself in the
process: “I realized I had this great fear of
b
eing a turncoat, which…was so powerful that
it prevented me from even looking at [my as-
sumptions]…Even to question was an act of be-
trayal. After I got out…the scales fell away from
my eyes and I understood that…the basic doc-
trine of arriving at democracy through dicta-
torship was wrong.”
What’s more, Rittenberg emerged from
prison certain that absolutely nothing in his
professional life could break him and went on
to start a company with his wife. Rittenberg
A
ssociates is a consulting firm dedicated to de-
v
eloping business ties between the United
States and China. Today, Rittenberg is as com-
mitted to his ideals—if not to his view of the
b
est way to get there—as he was 50 years ago,
when he was so severely tested.
Meeting Great Expectations
Fo
r
tunately, not all crucible experiences are
traumatic. In fact, they can involve a positive,
if deeply challenging, experience such as having
a demanding boss or mentor. Judge Nathaniel
R. Jones of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the
Sixth Circuit, for instance, attributes much of
his success to his interaction with a splendid
mentor. That mentor was J. Maynard Dicker
son,
a successful attorney—the first black city prose-
cutor in the United States—and editor of a
local African-American newspaper.
Dickerson influenced Jones at many levels.
F
or instance, the older man brought Jones
b
ehind the scenes to witness firsthand the
great civil rights struggle of the 1950s, invit-
ing him to sit in on conversations with activ-
ists like Thurgood Marshall, Walter White,
Ro
y Wilkins, and Robert C. Weaver. Says
Jones, “I was struck by their resolve, their hu-
mor…and their determination not to let the
s
ystem define them. Rather than just feel
be
a
ten down, they turned it around.” The ex-
perience no doubt influenced the many im-
po
rt
ant opinions Judge Jones has written in
r
egard to civil rights.
Dickerson was both model and coach. His
lessons covered every aspect of Jones’s intellec-
tual growth and presentation of self, including
schooling in what we now call “emotional in-
telligence.” Dickerson set the highest standards
f
or Jones, especially in the area of communica-
tion skills—a facility we’ve found essential to
leadership. Dickerson edited Jones’s early at-
tempts at writing a sports column with respect-
ful ruthlessness, in red ink, as Jones remembers
to this day—marking up the copy so that it
looked, as Jones says, “like something chickens
had a fight over.” But Dickerson also took the
time to explain every single mistake and why it
mattered.
His mentor also expected the teenage Jones
to speak correctly at all times and would hiss
discreetly in his direction if he stumbled. Great
e
xpectations are evidence of great respect, and
as Jones learned all the complex, often subtle
lessons of how to succeed, he was motivated in
no small measure by his desire not to disap-
p
oint the man he still calls “Mr. Dickerson.”
Dickerson gave Jones
the kind of
intensive
men-
toring that was tantamount to grooming him
f
or a kind of professional and moral success
ion—
and Jones has indeed become an instrument
f
or the profound societal change for which
Dickerson fought so c
ourageously as
well.
Jones
f
ound life-changing meaning in the attention
Dickerson paid to him—attention fueled by a
c
onviction that he, too, though only a teen-
ager, had a vital role to play in society and an
important destiny.
Another story of a powerful mentor came
to
us from Michael Klein, a young man who
made millions in Southern California real es-
ta
te while still in his teens, only to lose it by the
time he turned 20 and then go on to start
se
ve
r
al other businesses. His mentor was his
grandfather Max S. Klein, who created the
paint-by-numbers fad that swept the United
States in the 1950s and 1960s. Klein was only
f
our or five years old when his grandfather ap-
proached him and offered to share his business
e
xpertise. Over the years, Michael Klein’s
grandfather taught him to learn from and to
c
ope with change, and the two spoke by phone
f
or an hour every day until shortly before Max
Klein’s death.
The Essentials of Leadership
In our interviews, we heard many other stories
of crucible experiences. Take Jack Coleman,
Fortunately,
not
all
crucible experiences are
traumatic. In fact, they
can involv
e a positive, if
deeply challenging,
experience such as
ha
v
ing a demanding boss
or mentor.
Crucibles of Leadership



HBR A
T
L
ARGE
harvard business review
• september 2002
page 8
78-year-old former president of Haverford
C
ol
lege in Pennsylvania. He told us of one day,
during the Vietnam War, when he heard that a
group of students was planning to pull down
the American flag and burn it—and that
f
ormer members of the school’s football team
were going to make sure the students didn’t
succeed. Seemingly out of nowhere, Coleman
had the idea to preempt the violence by sug-
gesting that the protesting students take down
the flag, wash it, and then put it back up—a
crucible moment that even now elicits tre-
mendous emotion in Coleman as he describes
that day.
There’s also Common Cause founder John
W.
Gardner, who died earlier this year at 89.
He identified his arduous training as a Marine
during World War II as the crucible in which
his leadership abilities emerged. Architect Frank
Gehry spoke of the biases he experienced as a
Jew in college. Jeff Wilke, a general manager at
a major manufacturer, told us of the day he
learned that an employee had been killed in
his plant—an experience that taught him that
leadership was about much more than making
quarterly numbers.
So, what allowed these people to not only
c
ope with these difficult situations but also
learn from them? We believe that great leaders
p
ossess four essential skills, and, we were sur-
prised to learn, these happen to be the same
skills that allow a person to find meaning in
what could be a debilitating experience. First is
the ability to engage others in shared meaning.
C
onsider Sidney Harman, who dived into a
chaotic work environment to mobilize employ-
ees around an entirely new approach to man-
agement. Second is a distinctive and compel-
ling voice. Look at Jack Coleman’s ability to
defuse a potentially violent situation with only
his words. Third is a sense of integrity (including
a strong set of values). Here, we point again to
C
oleman, whose values prevailed even during
the emotionally charged clash between peace
demonstrators and the angry (and strong)
f
ormer football team members.
But by far the most critical skill of the four is
what we call “adaptive capacity.” This is, in es-
sence, applied creativity—an almost magical
ability to transcend adversity, with all its atten-
dant stresses, and to emerge stronger than be-
fo
re
.
It’s composed of two primary qualities:
the ability to grasp context, and hardiness. The
ability to grasp context implies an ability to
weigh a welter of factors, ranging from how
ve
ry
different groups of people will interpret a
gesture to being able to put a situation in
pers
pective. Without this, leaders are utterly
lost, because they cannot connect with their
c
onstituents. M. Douglas Ivester, who succ
eeded
Ro
be
r
to Goizueta at Coca-Cola, exhibited a
woeful inability to grasp context, lasting
just
28 months on the job. For example, he de-
moted his highest-ranked African-American
employee even as the company was losing a
$200 million class-action suit brought by black
employees—and this in Atlanta, a city with a
p
owerful African-American majority. Contrast
Ivester with Vernon Jordan. Jordan realized his
b
oss’s time was up—not just his time in power,
but the era that formed him. And so Jordan
was able to see past the insults and recognize
his boss’s bitterness for what it was—desperate
lashing out.
Hardiness is just what it sounds like—the
perseverance and toughness that enable peo-
p
le to emerge from devastating circumstances
without losing hope. Look at Michael Klein,
who experienced failure but didn’t let it defeat
him. He found himself with a single asset—a
tiny software company he’d acquired. Klein
built it into Transoft Networks, which Hewlett-
P
ackard acquired in 1999.
C
onsider, to
o,
Mickie
Siebert, who used her sense of humor to curtail
offensive conversations. Or Sidney Rittenberg’s
strength during his imprisonment. He drew
on
his personal memories and inner strength
to emerge from his lengthy prison term with-
out bitterness.
It is the combination of hardiness and ability
to grasp context that, above all, allows a person
to not only survive an ordeal, but to learn from
it, and to emerge stronger, more engaged, and
more committed than ever. These attributes
allow leaders to grow from their crucibles, in-
stead of being destroyed by them—to find op-
po
r
tunity where others might
find only des
pair.
This is the stuff of true leadership.
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ARGE
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Further Reading
ARTICLES
Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of
Humility and Fierce Resolve
by Jim Collins
Harvard Business Review
January 2001
Product no. R0507M
The intense self-reflection and transformation
that accompany crucible experiences can nur-
ture the seed of what Collins defines as
Lev
el
5 leadership
—the rare ability to boost com-
panies to greatness
and
keep them there.
Le
v
el 5 leaders blend the paradoxical combi-
nation of
deep personal humility
with
intense
professional will
. One of the key characteristics
of Level 5 leaders is their ability to deal with
the brutal facts of reality—while maintaining
absolute faith that they will prevail.
A Survival Guide for Leaders
by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky
Harvard Business Review
June 2002
Product no. R0206C
If
you emerge stronger from a crucible experi-
ence, you may encounter the darker side of
leadership: the inevitable attempts by
change-resistant followers to derail you.
Change is painful, and some people try to
ease the pain by removing change’s agent: you.
How to counteract resistance? First,
manage
y
our environment
—y
our organization and
its people. For example, operate both in
and
above the fray, asking “What’s really going
on? Who’s
defending the status quo?” And
k
eep the “heat” high enough to motivate, but
low enough to prevent explosions. Second,
manage your vulnerabilities
. Resist the
urge to establish order and control for their
o
wn sake. And anchor yourself with daily rou-
tines that help you recalibrate, as well as confi-
dants who support you.
BOOK
Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values, and
Defining Moments Shape Leaders
by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas
Harvard Business School Press
2002
Product no. 5823
This book expands on the ideas in “Crucibles
of Leadership ” article, introducing readers to
fo
rt
y-three leaders who have experienced cru-
cibles. In particular, it compares the transfor-
mative experiences of two groups:
geeks
and
geezers
. Geeks are accomplished leaders be-
tw
een the ages of 21 and 35; geezers are be-
tw
een the ages of 70 and 93 and still contrib-
uting significantly to professions, industries
or
society.
The authors explore how key events in these
individuals’ times—such as World War II or
the dot-
com Internet explosion—challenged
them and opened them to new ways of
seeing
the world, of leading, and of being
successful, healthy human beings. The
book’s many stor
ies can help you define your
o
wn best strategies for leading and learning
f
or a lifetime.