Crucibles of leadership

Harv Bus Rev. 2002 Sep;80(9):39-45, 124.


What makes a great leader? Why do some people appear to know instinctively how to inspire employees--bringing out their confidence, loyalty, and dedication--while others flounder again and again? No simple formula can explain how great leaders come to be, but Bennis and Thomas believe it has something to do with the ways people handle adversity. The authors' recent research suggests that one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is the ability to learn from even the most negative experiences. An extraordinary leader is a kind of phoenix rising from the ashes of adversity stronger and more committed than ever. In interviewing more than 40 leaders in business and the public sector over the past three years, the authors discovered that all of them--young and old alike--had endured intense, often traumatic, experiences that transformed them and became the source of their distinctive leadership abilities. Bennis and Thomas call these shaping experiences "crucibles," after the vessels medieval alchemists used in their attempts to turn base metals into gold. For the interviewees, their crucibles were the points at which they were forced to question who they were and what was important to them. These experiences made them stronger and more confident and changed their sense of purpose in some fundamental way. Through a variety of examples, the authors explore the idea of the crucible in detail. They also reveal that great leaders possess four essential skills, the most critical of which is "adaptive capacity"--an almost magical ability to transcend adversity and emerge stronger than before.

MeSH terms

  • Cultural Diversity
  • Decision Making, Organizational
  • Humans
  • Leadership*
  • Learning
  • Life Change Events*
  • Organizational Culture
  • Personnel Selection
  • Professional Competence*
  • Research
  • United States