Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader, by Robert J. Thomas, is out from Harvard Business School Press this month. Thomas's premise is that what matters most is what one makes of experience--particularly, the traumatic and often unplanned crucible events that challenge one's identity as a leader.
Here's an exemplary passage from Chapter 5: The Core of a Personal Learning Strategy:
Why Lead? As a young man, John W. Gardner had no ambition to lead, much less to manage. Yet when he passed away in 2006, his accomplishments included serving as secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Lyndon B. Johnson (despite being a registered Republican), presiding over the creation of the Public Broadcasting System, founding two successful public action lobbies (Common Cause and the Independent Sector), presiding over the Carnegie Corporation, and serving as a Marine Corps officer in World War II. What kindled his desire to lead? Finding himself in a small management job at the Federal Communications Commission during World War II, he recalled, "I began to get quite impressive praise for my management skills. And it wasn't even on my map! I mean I didn't even respect managers. But apparently some qualities were there waiting for life to pull those things out of me." Gardner deeply believed that life was a tug-of-war between what "was" and what "was possible" and that the principle human challenge--his challenge--was one of continuous renewal even in the face of what might seem to be implacable opposition and constraint. As he put it, "The need for endless learning and trying is a way of living, a way of thinking, a way of being awake and ready. Life isn't a train ride where you choose your destination, pay your fare and settle back for a nap. It's a cycle ride over uncertain terrain, with you in the driver's seat, constantly correcting your balance and determining the direction of progress. It's difficult, sometimes profoundly painful. But it's better than napping through life." There is no point in trying to assess people's abilities without first finding out what they care about. The same goes for trying to assess things such as "leadership potential" or "creativity" out of context. One has always to ask, in relation to what? Thus, before we address motives and skills, we start by asking, Why do you lead? Why does a person seek out, or accept, the burden of leadership? A Personal Learning Strategy begins and ends with why as the central question and with you as the central character. You alone can answer these questions. The vessel you are creating will hold your aspirations and your passions and provide a shield that defends you from the fears and inhibitions that learning inevitably summons up.From Crucibles of Leadership by Robert J. Thomas, Harvard Business School Press, 2008.