• 30 Sep 2002
  • What Do You Think?

Are Business Schools Really Important “Crucibles of Leadership?”

by James Heskett

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?