Veteran leaders like Robert Crandall, former CEO of American
Airlines, and Frances , former head of the Girl Scouts of America
and currently CEO of the Foundation, were adamant that people who
aspire to leadership positions need more than expertise—they need
experience. Neither they nor the other senior leaders openly
disparaged professional schools. In fact, most applauded the
powerful analytical skills the schools teach. But they didn't put
much stock in the proposition that business schools—or management
development programs—could teach next-generation leaders how to lead
for a lifetime.
Interestingly, most of the under-33 leaders—many of
whom attended prestigious business schools—agreed. Young leaders
like Elizabeth Kao at Ford or Jeff at Amazon.com, both graduates of
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's dual management and
engineering graduate program, underscored the importance of learning
leadership on the job.
Similarly, entrepreneurs like EarthLink founder Sky
Dayton, CEO Michael Klein, and Dan's Chocolates founder Dan
Cunningham, as well as social activists like Wendy Kopp of Teach For
America and of Baltimore's Community Mediation Program, all said
they thirsted for experiences that would make them become better
It's not quite that simple, of course, as our
interviewees readily acknowledged. For one thing, leadership
experience is hard to get—even harder, perhaps, than it was a
generation ago. Organizational flattening is leaving fewer layers,
fewer clear promotional ladders and fewer opportunities to learn to
lead in traditional ways. What's more, the aging US workforce—or,
more accurately, baby boomers hanging on to their jobs longer—means
more competition for the leadership slots available.
And while within this group there was universal reverence for
experience, there was also general agreement that what matters even
more is learning how to extract genuine wisdom from experience.
Indeed, it was remarkable that many of these 41 men and women often
took very different lessons about life and very different
orientations toward leadership from the daunting experiences they
shared with contemporaries.
For example, some 75 to 80-year-olds came out of the Great
Depression chastened by their parents' sense of loss and insecurity.
But interviewees Walter Sondheim of the Greater Baltimore Committee,
a nonprofit economic development organization, and Wall Street
veteran Muriel Siebert endured the same circumstances, yet emerged
as risk takers and energetic leaders.
Likewise, while some 30-year-olds are already retreating from the
oscillating fortunes of the Internet economy, the young leaders we
interviewed are absorbing the lessons they've learned from
bankruptcy and moving on to new ventures (indeed, a few are already
on their third or fourth startup).
Crucibles for Leadership
Two questions emerged from these discussions about experience.
First, as traditional opportunities to gain leadership experience
dwindle, is it possible for organizations to create such
opportunities? And second, is there a discernible process or
competence through which leaders actually learn to lead?
Answers to these questions can be found in an
exploration of how accomplished leaders evolve over time.
We believe that the ability to extract wisdom and insight from
experience is most often acquired in a distinctive milieu—what we
call a crucible. The
American Heritage Dictionary defines
a crucible as "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 temperature." Blending these three definitions, we
use "crucible" to refer to an intense, meaningful and often
transformational experience. Based on our interviews, we identified
four major types of crucibles.
Mentors have long exerted dramatic influence on those they mentor,
of course, particularly on young people. But two critical elements
appeared in virtually every mentoring relationship described in our
interviews. First, protégés attracted mentors; there was something
compelling about them that made them approachable and interesting.
Second, mentors were ; they were open to caring for a particular
protégé and willing to share valuable insight without any
expectations of reward for their efforts.
A case in point from our interview subjects is Judge Nathaniel R.
Jones of the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and the
author of many important opinions in the field of civil rights law.
Jones describes a crucial time in his adolescence in
Youngstown, Ohio, when he "could have gone a very different way." A
local lawyer took him behind the scenes for a firsthand look at the
nascent civil rights movement of the 1950s. A witness to history in
the making, Jones saw activists create strategy, heard them reflect
on their experiences and watched them debate their roles in the
African-American community. For his part, Jones provided his mentor
with the challenge to rescue an intelligent young man who was
falling through the cracks of that city's educational system.
This crucible has at its core an opportunity for both exploration
and reflection. College has the potential to be such a crucible,
particularly as it affords a young person the time and space to
explore other possible selves and lifestyles. The same can be said
for more regimented settings that emphasize introspection, like yoga
retreats, martial arts training and seminaries.
Other examples of enforced reflection include
variations on what sociologist Erving calls "total institutions,"
such as military boot camp: They fully envelop participants, teach
them how to react in uncertain and stressful situations, and develop
their self-confidence. Through these crucibles, individuals learn
preparedness—a kind of preternatural alertness to the subtle signals
that surround them—and a willingness to experiment in the interest
of survival and, by extension, knowledge of the world around them.
Mike Wallace, who became a leader in the CBS news
organization and the journalistic community through the pioneering
program 60 Minutes,
told us that active duty during World War II fundamentally altered
the way he thought about himself and his potential.
Insertion Into Foreign Territory
Most people find themselves operating in foreign, sometimes hostile,
territory at some point in their lives. However, the leaders we
interviewed demonstrated a remarkable capacity not only to survive
those tough experiences but to extract profound insights from them.
For example, Muriel Siebert talked about her alienation as a
female analyst on Wall Street in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite
assiduous research and network building, she could not work her way
into the brokerage side of the business or stake a claim to
commissions even when she was directly responsible for sales. Rather
than acquiesce and accept the role thrust upon her and other women,
she ventured into even more unfamiliar territory, founded her own
brokerage firm and became the first woman to own a seat on the New
York Stock Exchange.
Others might be overwhelmed by the newness, the confusion, the
deluge of sensations encountered in foreign territory. But these
leaders embraced the disorientation and wove it into their own
experiential tapestry. More important, they continued to seek out
new foreign territories, whether a new geography, culture, business,
organizational role or idea.
Disruption and Loss
Personal loss, particularly of an associate, has the capacity to
destabilize. But as Jeff , senior vice president of operations at
Amazon.com, told us, loss can also allow leaders to understand their
organizations in a fundamentally new—and more comprehensive—way.
Before joining the online bookseller,had been the plant manager
at an industrial facility where a machine operator was killed on the
job.was confronted with the very tender fabric of human life that
sometimes gets lost when leading "by the numbers." According to"It's
a transformational experience . . . to realize that in the end it's
all these lives that are all wrapped up together. And every so often
an event happens that isn't just about whether we made the quarter."
In other instances, loss of a parent (particularly when it
requires a person to take on family responsibility or live
independently at an early age), loss of a sibling or close friend
(which often occurs during war-time), bankruptcy, or failure in an
important assignment or undertaking (including a run for public
office) can stimulate a search for greater understanding of self, of
relationships and of larger webs of affiliation. All these events
carry the potential to catalyze a search for meaning and develop a
far keener ability to extract insights from experience.
To be sure, life and career-altering experiences like many of the
crucibles cited above cannot be crafted. Few of us will ever find
ourselves in a situation like Mike Wallace did—a young
communications officer directing submarine traffic in the heat of
battle. But there are things that organizations and their leaders
can do to capture and distill the essence of experience and, hence,
accelerate the evolution of next-generation leaders.
One caveat, however: Given the ephemeral nature of experience,
there are no guarantees in this area. Growing a leader is somewhat
akin to stimulating innovation: You can assemble all the ingredients
and corollary processes, but you cannot force it to occur.
Making it Personal
With that in mind, CEOs need to seriously consider the following.
Mentoring has become a popular term, but if our observations are
any guide, most mentoring today is not like that experienced by the
leaders we interviewed. To function as a crucible, mentoring has to
be carried out by people who care, working with people who want to
be cared about.
To be effective, mentoring must be a very personal experience.
Mentors need to convey insight clearly, simply and in their own
voices, not in the way they imagine a leadership development
curriculum would sound. Mentors also need to spot crucible
opportunities, then enhance them for their protégés or direct their
protégés toward them.
Likewise, protégés need to be alert to both the opportunities and
the limits provided by the mentoring crucible. They need to
appreciate the extraordinary responsibility that mentors undertake
(as well as their potential vulnerability) when they care enough to
take part in the relationship.
According to our interviews, the most effective mentors did not
portray themselves as flawless, no matter how consummate their
skills. In fact, many were willing to reveal some of their own
weaknesses, fears and uncertainties to their protégés.
In our study, we also had the opportunity to observe
examples of cross-generational learning—conversations between older
and younger leaders. Amazing things sometimes occurred. For example,
in one conversation we saw an older leader turn from storyteller to
active listener. Not only did he demonstrate sensitivity to his
protégé's need to tell his own story, but he also elicited further
stories that enabled the pair to explore a topic as peers.
On another occasion Bob Galvin, former CEO of Motorola, and his
grandson, Rolling Oaks Enterprises CEO Brian Sullivan, talked about
the latter's early experiences in public speaking. Sullivan then
listened with fascination as his grandfather revealed his own
rationale for putting oneself into situations that test poise and
Cross-generational learning of this sort may be commonplace in
family settings, but it's unclear how often it takes place in
business or government organizations. As companies face the
departure of large numbers of knowledgeable, skilled and often wise
senior employees (leaders and otherwise), there ought to be real
concern about how those vital assets will be transferred to the next
generation—or if they will be passed along at all.
For these conversations to be effective, senior participants need
to become effective storytellers themselves, realizing that vital
knowledge is found less often in databases than in stories.
Listeners, in turn, need to coax meaningful stories from their
seniors. They need to exercise patience with those who are not yet
the best storytellers.
Learning About Learning
We conclude from our interviews that while aspects of leadership can
be learned, the most important ones are not likely to be acquired
through the use of conventional leadership development tools and
techniques. However, we also believe that it would be a mistake to
eliminate classroom training, job rotation, performance assessment
and the like.
What's missing in conventional techniques is what's at the heart
of the leadership crucible: the ability to extract wisdom from
experience. To that end, we suggest that explicit attention to
"learning about learning" needs to be layered onto conventional
leadership development. There are several ways that can be
Create more leadership opportunities and make them part of an
explicit learning t example, more and more organizations are
moving to project-based work (often organizing teams for a limited
time and with clear performance objectives). Only a small number of
those firms are using projects as an opportunity to develop
leadership "practice fields" in which a larger number of people are
given the chance to test their hands at leading under non-fatal
Use efforts to unlock value from existing
products and knowledge as opportunities for managers to practice
being leaders. For
example, three of our colleagues have described a process of "fast
venturing" as one way for firms to get undervalued innovations to
market. They explicitly identified the lack of leaders as an
obstacle to fast venturing (see Outlook, June 2000). Under
this scenario, companies could launch new ventures and leadership
Link what has been discovered about differences
in adult learning styles to the creation of leadership crucibles. As
our interviews revealed, different people learn and grow under
different circumstances. Rather than assume that one style of
learning (and teaching) fits all aspiring leaders, organizations and
their current leaders need to fit leading and learning opportunities
to their next generation.
As the tenure of the average CEO grows shorter, it
might be tempting to suggest that a current CEO concentrate
exclusively on the present and do little about next-generation
leaders—and even less about the generation after that. However, when
successful senior executives look back at the defining experiences
in their careers—the crucibles through which they learned to lead—it
ought to be abundantly clear that the future is not entirely a
product of chance. In each and every instance there were people who
intervened to guide, shape or redirect the evolution of every