30 Sep 2002  What Do YOU Think?

Are Business Schools Really Important “Crucibles of Leadership?”

Summing Up

Crucibles of leadership are where you find them—or they find you. And business schools rarely create them, at least according to the respondents to the October column.

Perry Miles put it most succinctly when he said, "A business school cannot and should not be designed as a crucible. Crucibles—by design—are boot camps of a sort, where the heat and pressure make or break the participant." Lim Yung Hui commented, "Business schools can only create a context that is fertile for the emergence of leadership." And according to Charlie Cullinane, "It would be very difficult for a school to create the equivalent of a tough childhood, a religious revelation, or a life and death experience."

Setting aside the issue, Shaun Greene even questioned the importance of crucibles of leadership, raising the age-old question of nature versus nurture. As he observed, "The 'crucible' can help someone become better or more effective but the truly great were naturals."

Steffen Nevermann stated the case for the affirmative, but cautioned, "To create crucibles from which leaders may emerge, schools must put their students in a learning mode that challenges them to accept responsibility for their own education and gives them first-hand appreciation of the application of knowledge and skills to practice." Nevertheless, Kathryn Aiken points out that "... studying other crucibles is no substitute for experiencing your own." And in that regard, Aiken feels that women often face a different challenge than men because they are too often "put into staff positions rather than line management jobs in order to 'protect their success,'" which, she adds, "…actually hinders the movement of women and prevents the exposure to crucibles of leadership."

If the majority prevails and one accepts the validity of research on the subject, it leaves us with the question of just what business schools can contribute to the leadership development process. Is it limited, as Miles (a retired Marine) suggests, to "teach[ing] and model[ing] ethical leadership?" Or can it also include the study of management practices that help create crucibles of leadership for others as well as dilemmas that enable one to "practice" for the day that such a crucible may actually come along? What do you think?

Original Article

The new book Geeks and Geezers by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas, argues that all the leaders they studied, whether "geeks" (under thirty) or "geezers" (over seventy), have the ability to engage others in shared meaning; a distinctive and compelling voice; a sense of integrity; and "neoteny," a trait that makes them "addicted to life" and able to recruit protectors, nurturers, and believers through a long and productive leadership career.

In pointing out one other thing shared by leaders, the authors state once again the case for leaders being made, not born. These primary qualities of leaders are formed in the "crucible of leadership" (as Bennis and Thomas define it, anything from an important mentoring relationship to a near-death or war-time experience). Leaders have the adaptive capacity to learn from the crucible rather than be psychologically destroyed by it. Their geeks and geezers may have experienced different kinds of crucibles (the dot-com bust as opposed to the Second World War, for example), but they learned many of the same lessons from them.

The concept of the "crucible of leadership" was suggested by Abraham Zaleznik in a 1977 Harvard Business Review article, "Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?" Arguing that they are, Zaleznik cited one difference:Is a person "once-born" or "twice-born?" That is, have they had a traumatic experience in their life (the second birth), requiring, as Zaleznik described it to me in a recent e-mail, "a turning into one's self ... following which one emerges with a deepened sense of self, and relatively free of dependency on the social structure."

Zaleznik in turn was influenced in his thinking by William James, who, in a series of lectures in 1902 published The Varieties of Religious Experience, first suggested important differences between the relatively well-adjusted "once-born" individual with a strong sense of belonging and the "twice-born" person with a sense of being separate.

Regardless of the degree to which we feel leaders are made rather than born, the concept of the crucible of leadership raises a number of questions for us, some of which are posed by the authors of Geeks and Geezers.

If crucibles of leadership are so important, do men and women have equal access to them? If we value diversity in leadership ranks, what can be done to provide greater access to the essential crucibles? In general, what can we do in the private or public sectors to create crucibles from which leaders may emerge? What form might they take? Assuming that one of their objectives is to forge leaders, to what extent do business schools fill the role? Given the findings of investigators like Bennis, Thomas, and Zaleznik regarding leadership, is it realistic to think that business schools can perform an important role in this quest? What do you think?

To learn more:

Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas, Geeks and Geezers
(Boston: HBS Press, 2002).

Abraham Zaleznik, "Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?"
Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1977.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
(Random House, Inc., May 1999).

Comments

    • Shaun Greene Regional Operations Manager, Recall

    To an extent a leader can be made, however great leaders are born. The "crucible" can help someone become better or more effective but the truly great were naturals. Greats like MacArthur or Welch garnered a lot from experience/education but their genius was innate, not learned. They also both graduated from publicly owned institutions that provided "equal access."

     
     
     
    • Charlie Cullinane

    The "crucible" is different for everybody. Military service for Colin Powell, discrimination for Vernon Jordan, stuttering for Jack Welch, dyslexia for George Patton! The discipline required to successfully complete a program in business may qualify as a "crucible," but if school comes easy to you it is not!

    It is not realistic to think that business schools can be the "crucible of change" for the average student. Business school was not the life-changing experience for me that military service was. Hard, but not life threatening!

    It would be very difficult for a school to create the equivalent of a tough childhood, a religious revelation, or a life and death experience. A good education is a way to utilize the experience/crucible, to get beyond it.

     
     
     
    • R. Sonja
    • Student

    I just finished reading your article on "crucibles of leadership." At the end of the article you asked if business schools were up to the challenge of turning out leaders and what you could do to provide greater access to the "crucibles" that form leaders. While I am not in a position to say whether or not business schools have this capability, I know of one program that does.

    The Colorado Outward Bound School has, among its many programs, a trip called the Wilderness Leadership Semester. It is an eighty-one-day course that includes hiking, rafting, and climbing in four states. You are on the course with thirty-nine other complete strangers, divided into four groups. The physical and emotional stresses of the trip, as well as its length, force the participants to adapt and to adopt many of the traits listed as leadership qualities in the article "How Tough Times Shape Good Leaders." It was definitely a tough time for all of us who made it. Those who did not adapt and develop leadership skills did not complete the course ... .

    Basically, the course is a self-inflicted trauma with guides to help you come through it, not only in one piece, but with fantastic leadership skills. So when asking whether or not business schools have what it takes to teach leadership, or if it is their place to turn out leaders, keep in mind that there is a program that enriches and is accessible and designed for turning out leaders. While the Colorado Outward Bound School is not a mainstream educational choice, it is an excellent experience no matter how you look at it.

     
     
     
    • Perry Miles
    • Retired, USMC

    A business school cannot and should not be designed as a crucible. Crucibles—by design—are boot camps of a sort, where the heat and pressure make or break the participant. Business schools ought to teach and model ethical leadership as an integral part of the course of instruction, but the make-or-break essence of a crucible experience cannot be achieved, and should not be attempted.

     
     
     
    • Steffen Nevermann
    • Special Assistant to CEO, Amazeware Inc. (Enterprise Software Start-up)

    To answer this question, I would like to share and elaborate on some insights from the French Sociologist Pierre Bordieu combined with a book I have recently read, Teaching and the Case Method, (Barnes, Christensen, and Hansen, HBS Press 1994).

    When educational objectives focus on qualities of mind (curiosity, judgment, wisdom), qualities of person (character, sensitivity, integrity, responsibility), and the ability to apply general concepts and knowledge to specific situations, discussion pedagogy (as opposed to lecture pedagogy) is very effective as it places students in an active learning mode.

    Schools that attempt to make leaders of non-leaders through lecture pedagogy are, in my opinion, heading into a blind cave. To teach (and even require students to memorize) principles, body language, and habits of leaders does little to prepare the practitioner in [dealing with] the complexity of real-life situations.

    To create crucibles from which leaders may emerge, schools must put their students in a learning mode that challenges them to accept responsibility for their own education, and gives them first-hand appreciation of the application of knowledge and skills to practice. Through, for example, scores of cases and group work, students have the opportunity to brick a leadership-focused "habitus" (the sum of earlier experiences), which will work as a matrix for these individuals in perceiving, valuing, and enacting situations that require leadership in the future. If some schools are able to achieve this, so can others!

    Therefore, my answer is yes—business schools are important "crucibles of leadership," however, not all of them take advantage of this!

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I agree with the concept of the "once-born" versus the "twice-born." Upon starting business school, I was roughly ten years older than the age of my entering class. I was very impressed with most of them in terms of intelligence and accomplishments, but I felt many of them lacked something I couldn't name. When I realized that the quality lacking was having experienced failure, I started talking to some of my classmates. One woman, only twenty-six indicated that she agreed with my assessment. However, I realized that I didn't detect this lacking element in her. When I inquired, it turned out that she had experienced a very abrupt and violent exile from her own country, and twice had to start over in new culture, country, and language before she reached the age of maturity. I think that encountering and overcoming adversity is the most important lesson required of a leader. It teaches both humility and faith in your own ability to persevere.

     
     
     
    • Kathryn Aiken
    • Organizational Development, SC Johnson & Son, Inc.

    I believe that in a small way, business schools can create a mock "crucible of leadership" through constant case study analysis. But, I think studying other crucibles is no substitute for experiencing your own. The other issue is that since only a small percentage of the students actually engage or participate in the discussion/debate on the challenges of the case with the professor, the learning doesn't take place at a high enough level to make it stick.

    I agree with the 25-30 year old "crucible" concept, as I also experienced great challenges in those years of my life. These events shaped who I am today, and have guided me across my career. Many younger MBA students don't have that experience yet, so are constantly asking the professors and guest lecturers for examples to make things real for them. Often, though, the examples may fall short of getting into the "how to" stage of learning, so the student fails to make the connection.

    Regarding diversity in crucible experience, there may still exist inherent bias in granting the right line assignments to women in many organizations. I have worked for numerous large corporations where women were often put into staff positions rather than line management jobs, in order to "protect their success" and ensure they survived the job. I have seen this sort of behavior in numerous organizations, and what happens is that the women generally have had to do two separate assignments to prove they are ready, whereas the men would only need to do one assignment to prove themselves and then move upward. This "insurance" of success actually hinders the movement of women and prevents the exposure to crucibles of leadership. Let's stop "protecting" women from success and throw them in with both feet to show what they are capable of.

     
     
     
    • Lim Yung Hui
    • Business Development Manager, Icfox (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd

    Business schools can only create a context that is fertile for the emergence of leadership. No matter how many books a person reads about leadership, it won't cultivate leadership in her/him.

    Leadership is experienced. It is a set of habits, attributes, (e.g. discipline), which a person can pick up along the journey of his/her life. Of course, these habits and attributes can be cultivated. Some people have the privilege of having the habits instilled within them early in their life by their parents, for example. Others pick them up through life challenges.

    The first step is always the hardest. To experience leadership, a person needs to break loose from the inertia of the first step. Inertia can be due to lack of confidence, for example. Business schools can create a context that eases up the inertia.

    Creation of fertile ground for the cultivation of leadership is a real challenge for business schools. The measure of success is the usefulness of the students to their families, communities and organizations.