Harv Bus Rev. Sep;80(9), Crucibles of leadership. Bennis WG(1 ), Thomas RJ. Author information: (1)Leadership Institute, University of. Robert J. Thomas April 01, Pioneering scholarship by Warren Bennis, Edgar Schein, Chris Argyris, Donald Schon and Bennis and I speculate about the process through which crucibles teach leadership lessons. Crucibles of Leadership. Bennis, Warren G.; Thomas, Robert J. Harvard Business Review, v80 n9 p Sep Often, a traumatic event that forces a.

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This is a summary of the full article. To enjoy the full article sign increate an accountor buy this article. For those learning to lead, experience trumps formal training. But some experiences matter more than others, as two unconventional but highly successful organizations — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club — have recognized.

Leaders learn how to lead from experience. While that insight makes intuitive sense, a wealth of management writing confirms it. Some organizations have taken this idea to heart. For example, Toyota, Boeing, General Electric and MIT through its Leaders for Manufacturing program have put programs into place specifically to take advantage of experiential learning.

But they, and a few others, are the exceptions. Most companies stay within a narrow comfort zone. In Leading for a LifetimeWarren Bennis and I speculate about the process through which crucibles teach leadership lessons. For that project, I interviewed 70 leaders in business, the performing arts and sports and analyzed stories from dozens more in order to understand better the dynamics of experiential learning.

Crucible experiences can be thought of as a kind of superconcentrated form of leadership development.

Surprisingly, the best examples of organizations that deliberately employ such alchemy do not come from the business world. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons, and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club have mastered the art of turning crucible experiences into xnd gold. And these two otherwise radically different groups have important things to teach business. Think of it as leadership development from vrucibles and hell. Crucibles can occur on and off the job.

Crucibles of leadership.

Some take the form of reversal — a death in the family, a divorce, the loss of a job. Others involve a suspension, an in-between period that people go through while in graduate school, boot camp, unemployment — even jail. A third form is the crucible of new territory, in which the individual is thrust into a new social role or asked to take on an overseas assignment in an unfamiliar country.

Let me be clear: Like all crucible experiences, these stories are highly specific to the individuals in question. However, I am saying that some crucibles can be deliberately set up, managed and exploited to help produce leaders.

The Mormons and the Hells Angels follow that approach with crucibles of leadership development. And despite their manifest differences, they share a variety of other similarities. Both organizations are large, durable, complex, multiunit, multinational entities that have grown rapidly in the past three decades. Both have closed borders and engage in selective recruitment of new members, and they rarely admit converts into the top leadership ranks.

Yet neither suffers from a weak leadership gene pool. Each group uses a particular activity as a crucible experience for leader development. For the Mormon Church, the most visible crucible is the missionary experience, a test of faith, identity and leadership talent that also serves as the principal growth engine for church membership. A brief analysis of these organizationally instigated crucibles shows how they contribute to experience-based leader development.


With 12 million members, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is well on its way to becoming a world religion. Church membership has grown robustly since ; it doubled between and Missionary work is the principal mechanism of that growth.

Inthe Mormon Church had more than 52, men and women serving as missionaries in countries.

Since missions last two years for men and 18 months for women, nearly 30, new missionaries must come forward each year to maintain that level of outreach. But it is also a critical organizational function, a rite of passage for young men and women between the ages of 19 and 26, and a leadership crucible. It is a time of trial from which individuals emerge with a new or altered sense of identity — and from which future leaders of the church emerge.

Individuals are selected and assigned, introduced to the culture and the unique requirements of the job, deployed and managed while on site and renewed or reincorporated with new skills and perspectives. Yet the Mormon process goes deeper on every level. In each phase, the church emphasizes the acquisition of technical skills and learning skills.

For example, before they leave for their particular postings, missionaries get intensive training in language, culture and pedagogical technique. These are not one- or two-day etiquette seminars intended to prevent faux pas.

Crucibles of leadership.

Instead, members are steeped in methods for reading situations, for judging the sincerity of someone on the journey to conversion, for resolving conflicts and maintaining productive relationships with their missionary companions with whom they will live and work for up to six months and for developing the personal resilience necessary to withstand frequent rejection.

Many missionaries keep journals during their time away and record their impressions, insights and lessons learned for future reflection.

Support, in the form of senior companions, enables missionaries to navigate through uncertain situations and to weather the inevitable homesickness. Return from the mission is a time of renewal for the individuals and for the organization. Special parties are organized to welcome missionaries home. Families are counseled to crucubles returning members time and space to reenter an environment that will appear to have changed dramatically.

Returning missionaries form alumni networks, often composed of church members who went through the Missionary Training Center together. The period after return also is recognized as an opportunity for reflection. As a result of the mission, then, the organization has new members and a fresh supply of dedicated individuals who curcibles the pool from which the next generation of leaders can be recruited.

The Hells Angels gets similar results from its own method of experience-based leader development. Alternately reviled and mythologized, the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club is perhaps best known for crhcibles things: As an organization, it is a paradox: Begun in in San Bernardino, California, the Hells Angels today claims upward of 2, members spread across chapters around the world.

Like many network-based organizations, the Hells Angels maintains a strong core leadership but a relatively flat structure.

Each chapter has a charter and a clearly defined division of labor between the international organization and the chapters. And because many of its ventures are secretive and subject to external surveillance, it works to prevent organizational decapitation by maintaining a leadership pipeline. As the group has grown in number and complexity — it sells dozens of branded products, for example, and recently had to sue Walt Disney Co. No mean feat, considering that large fractions of its leadership have been arrested periodically.


The Hells Angels shares certain core attributes and practices with the Mormon Church. Leaders are rarely recruited from the outside, and candidates undergo both a careful screening process and critical crucible experiences.

The most relevant test? Demonstrating the ability to organize and successfully manage a motorcycle run. Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Oakland, California, Hells Angels chapter, explains the significance of the run: Organizing a run is no simple affair. Runs typically stretch hundreds of miles along public thoroughfares.

The extraordinarily loud and deep rumble of dozens occasionally hundreds of unmuffled Harley-Davidson motorcycles can be heard for miles — no small source of delight to the riders. Though legal in most jurisdictions, a planned run nevertheless attracts a great deal of attention from local law enforcement agencies and civic officials eager to divert the event if possible. Moreover, runs invariably cross territorial boundaries between different clubs, many of which are hostile.

Fertile ground, then, for developing leaders. A Hells Angel chapter leader explained this to me in vivid language: Unless they want to.

A successful run requires imagination, negotiating skill, a surprise or two such as the selection of an unusual camping spot or night of entertainment and attention to history.

Veteran members recall past runs and judge current ones accordingly. Run organizers benefit from building on legend and venturing to create their own. For example, when two towns refused to allow parade permits for a planned run, one chapter leader discovered that bicycle paths could be used for legal passage. The chapter leader shared his own crucible lessons with me: It opened my eyes even more to what it takes to keep your freedom to do what you want.

As the Mormons do, the Hells Angels make sure to capture the lessons from their crucible experiences by meeting after the events. Writing in The Nation 40 years ago, Hunter S. Who else is going to tell him that he [messed] up but his family? Paradoxical as it may seem for an organization widely regarded as anarchic, the Hells Angels is exemplary in its use of critical experiences to grow leaders.

These are not esoteric or hard-to-implement lessons. They will require, however, an openness to experimentation and risk taking in the area of leader development — perhaps the biggest hurdle of all. But as businesses continue to need a well-stocked pipeline of future leaders, and as more begin to recognize the power of experience-based leadership development, the necessary change in mind-set is more likely to occur. Crucible experiences, when properly set up, managed and mined, can help aspiring companies develop their next generation of outstanding leaders.

Crucibles of Leadership Development peter July 24, I totally agree. Experience can make you better, but you have to have the right skills within you. You must sign in to post a comment. Crucibles of Leadership Development peter July 24, Add a comment Cancel reply You must sign in to post a comment.