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Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader Hardcover – March 24, 2008
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"As someone who has participated in the journey of a company that has grown from $4 million to $40 billion, I believe the core premise of this book rings true. The skills derived from facing one's own "crucibles" are powerful tools for growing one's business." -- Brad Anderson, Vice Chairman and CEO, Best Buy Co., Inc.
"Thomas displays exceptional understanding of the complex forces at work in any leader's career. Crucibles of Leadership provides a crisp road map to leading more effectively." -- Jeff Wilke, Senior Vice President, Amazon.com
"Robert Thomas has written the organizational playbook for transforming management into leadership. The critical elixir? Learning from those times when one's leadership was on the line." -- Michael Useem, William and Jacalyn Egan Professor and Director, Center for Leadership and Change Management, The Wharton School
About the Author
Robert J. Thomas is Executive Director of Accenture's Institute for High Performance Business and Galvin Professor of Leadership at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He co-authored Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders with Warren Bennis.
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The later chapters of the book were not so relevant to me as they were focusing not so much on crucibles but on conventional leadership development strategies.
They developed a theory that describes, they believe for the first time, how leaders come to be. "We believe that we have identified the process that allows an individual to undergo testing and to emerge, not just stronger, but better equipped with the tools he or she needs both to lead and to learn. It is a model that explains how individuals make meaning out of difficult events -- we call them [begin italics] crucibles [end italics] -- and how that process of 'meaning making' both galvanizes individuals and gives them their distinctive voice." They cite and then discuss a number of individuals who underwent that process and, as a result, became highly-effective leaders.
What we have in this volume is Thomas' further development of many of the core concepts shared in his earlier works as he shifts his focus to exploring "what life is like inside a crucible" to suggest various ways "to leverage the critical formative and transformative experiences that men and women have in their own lives that can reveal to them who they are and where they stand." Also, "to illuminate the process by which leaders learn and the skills and circumstances that accelerate their learning."
Thomas responds to even more specific questions such as these:
1. How to find what matters most in experience?
2. How to extract insights from that experience?
3. Why is having an "adaptive capacity" (i.e. resilience) so important?
4. How and why "can practice trump talent"?
5. How to recognize and transform crucible experiences?
6. What does a candid self-assessment involve and why is it imperative?
7. How to formulate a personal learning strategy?
8. How to formulate an experience-based leadership development program?
9. How to align organizational needs with individual capabilities?
10. Which issues must be addressed when preparing the next generation of leaders?
Thomas includes several dozen real-world examples of individuals who were able or unable to "extract wisdom from experience, however harsh." He also examines a number of exemplary companies that have designed and implemented an experience-based leadership development program. Although the details are best revealed within his narrative, in context, I will include three brief excerpts from the final chapter because they provide at least an indication of the thrust and flavor of Thomas' thinking.
"It is essential that organizations do more than compose lists of desired leadership competencies and address them through a menu of courses and workshops. They must also encourage each individual - or, at a minimum, each individual who aspires to a leadership role - to craft a [Personal Learning Strategy] and to use it as a living document, not something sketched once and set aside."
"If deep learning of the sort we encounter in crucibles is an important part of a leader's journey, and if strong emotions commonly accompany deep learning, then we need to know that strong emotions are very likely to be a part of leader development. If learning from experience is not a desirable part of leader development, then we can ignore it and hope it goes away; if we elect to pursue an experience-based approach to leader development, our only alternative is to find ways to work with emotions."
"Leaders must adapt and learn if they are to fulfill what we expect of them, and - if this study is any guide - if they are to fulfill 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.'"
Please review the list of ten questions provided earlier. Note that the word "how" is used to introduce seven of them. Although I would never describe this volume as a "how to" book, Thomas does identify and then explore a number of key issues for his reader to consider when determining whether or not an experience-based leadership development program would be appropriate for her or his organization. If the decision is at least a tentative "yes," he then offers a wealth of practical suggestions (strategies, tactics, do's, don'ts, etc.) that will guide and inform the design of such a program. I need to add that some of the most valuable advice in this book is provided by those men and women who took full advantage of a "crucible" as a learning opportunity. What they learned helped to take them to a higher level of performance. The lessons to be learned from their personal experiences can help others to do so, also.
* * * * *
Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out the aforementioned Geeks & Geezers or the renamed reissue, Leading for a Lifetime, as well as The Talent Powered Organization that Thomas co-authored with Peter Cheese and Elizabeth Craig. Also Bill George's Authentic Leadership and his more recent True North, Michael Ray's The Highest Goal, Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture, Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life, Chip Conley's Peak, and Resonant Leadership co-authored by Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee.
Why are some people natural leaders, while others fail time and time again? It is a timeless question without a simple answer. Based on interviews with more than 40 top leaders, the authors conclude that one of the most reliable indicators "is an individual's ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances." The authors term these intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that shape leaders as 'crucibles', "after the vessels medieval alchemists used in their attempts to turn base metals into gold." These leadership crucibles can take different shapes and forms. One of the most common types of crucibles involves the experience of prejudice. And some of the harshest crucible experiences illuminate a hidden and suppressed area of the soul (for instance, episodes of illness or violence). But, luckily, not all crucible experiences are traumatic. They can involve a positive, if deeply challenging, experience such as having a demanding boss or mentor. So, how do leaders cope and learn from these difficult situations? Bennis and Thomas believe that great leaders possess four essential skills: (1) The ability to engage others in shared meaning; (2) A distinctive and compelling voice; (3) A sense of integrity (including a strong set of values); and (4) "Adaptive capacity". They see this fourth skill as by far most critical skill. "This is, in essence, applied creativity - an almost magical ability to transcend adversity, with all its attendants stresses, and to emerge stronger than before." This "adaptive capacity", in turn, is composed of two primary qualities: the ability to grasp context and hardiness. The article is complemented with some, almost mythical, leadership examples. In addition, there is an introduction to the authors' book "Geeks and Geezers" (2002).
Interesting article on leadership which is in line with the latest thinking and research into emotional intelligence. The authors use some interesting examples, but they fall short on their explanation of the four essential skills of leadership. The 'crucibles' mentioned in this article remind me of Joseph Badaracco's 'Definining Moments' (1997). I believe that readers are better off with Warren Bennis' masterpiece 'On Becoming a Leader' (1994) or Daniel Goleman's 'Primal Leadership'(2001). The article is written in simple business US-English.