The Crucibles of Leadership: HBR Must Reads on Leadership Review #6

The very earliest discussions about leadership dealt with the inherent question of whether leadership was learned or inherent, nature versus nurture. While this debate continues, the general consensus is that it is both, that there is an intersectionality between our biological make-up and what we learn through our life experiences that inform our leadership decisions. It is not either/or, it must be both/and. Focusing on the nurture portion of leadership, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas in The Crucibles of Leadership, offer a foundation through which the nurturing of true leadership does not come out of a book, workshops, or b-schools, but through life’s great lessons, both positive and negative ones.

“Diversity is the innovation that we seek.”TandemSpring

From Bennis and Thomas’s perspective, there are crucial moments that people face in life. In particular, leadership lessons that come from the journey of overcoming adversity. When confronted with what the authors call a crucible (i.e., a severe test or trial, often traumatic, and always unplanned), an individual experiences transformational change and comes to a new or altered sense of identity and is forced to reconcile their values, beliefs, and actions. In those moments, people see their own humanity, and therefore the humanity of others; they choose to lead in a way that embraces their own truth and the truths of the people around them, and thus heighten their overall development as a leader. The lines between personal development and leading well become blurred, but for all of the right reasons. Business strategies begin to include humanity, and organizational cultures become more inclusive, adaptable, and able to authentically engage employees throughout the organization.

From Crucibles to Authentic Leadership

Types of Crucibles

  • Experiences of prejudice or abuse
  • Episodes of illness or violence
  • Positive challenges and opportunities

Essential Leadership Skills

  • Engage others in shared meaning
  • A Distinctive, Compelling Voice
  • Integrity
  • Adaptive Capacity

This an experiential model of leadership, grounded in the personal truths that often result from being challenged. The four essential leadership skills promote a model of leadership that is participatory, values-based, and clear, yet adaptable to context. In their research, Bennis and Thomas found that leaders who embody these characteristics have transformative outcomes in the midst of organizational challenge and adversity. It is important to also note that Bennis and Thomas found that all of the leaders that they interviewed considered the crucible moment to be one of reinvention. Should one not experience reinvention, the entire moment might be dismissed as a daunting or unpleasant task, one to be avoided, ignored, and/or forgotten. So, while the crucible experience is critical for transformation, without the essential leadership skills, the likelihood is considerably lessened that the moment will be viewed as a crucible, one that manifested transformation.

“Leadership exists to inspire people beyond their own limitations, and until you have done so, you have not truly led.”Monika Black

The true wisdom that underlies the crucible model is in clarifying the fact that how one “nurtures” leadership is embedded in the life experiences of each individual. Or, put another way, anyone who has overcome adversity or challenge can have a “crucible” moment that solidifies their sense of leadership. The crucible model also calls forward accountability; that until someone takes the time to truly understand the significance and meaning of these moments, and that often means sitting in discomfort, that they may not realize their own authentic model of leadership. Leaders must sit inside of those moments of overcoming and bring deep awareness to them, instead of hiding or suppressing, in order to realize their full potential as a leader.

In our work as executive coaches and change agents, one of the biggest challenges we confront in doing strengths-based leadership often tends to be around culture. The unasked/unanswered questions that many people wrestle with is, “If we are full of strengths as you say, then what do I do with all of my cultural experiences?  How do I reconcile suffering from “isms”, that clearly come from a deficit-oriented way of thinking, in a strengths-based way?” The answer to this is both obvious and incredibly difficult.  Each cultural identity needs to be re-understood through the lens of strengths, and every moment of cultural adversity viewed as a potential crucible moment. Often our cultural views and ways of being are rejected due to perceived juxtaposition to the status quo. But, we are all cultural beings. Through a strengths-based cultural perspective, the sheer fact that people have demonstrated strengths in overcoming stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination is the very foundation for quality leadership. They’ve taken the worst the world has to offer and developed a beautiful culture from it.  Or, as a popular recent meme puts it: “So far, you’ve survived 100% of your worst days. You’re doing great!”

Looking at these moments, even the powerful suffering that can occur at the hands of “isms”, destroys the traditional models of leadership and development of leadership. That is to say, that leadership is more informed by moments that we are often taught to hide from and minimize, than what is provided in the classroom or our successes while climbing the corporate ladder. Leadership is not found in bullet points on resumes, but in life experiences that cannot be effectively captured in a single sentence.  Only when these moments are fully explored and understood can they manifest authentic leadership, and the authenticity of one’s leadership can only be demonstrated and understood through the experience of it.

Want to follow along?

Purchase the HBR's 10 Must Reads On Leadership to follow along our reviews.

Click Here