Warren Bennis on Crucibles of Leadership


Thinkers50 founders Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove talked with Warren Bennis many times over the last twenty or so years. He was an enthusiastic interviewee, and person. Discussing the concept of crucibles we asked if it was possible to create your own crucible:

That’s the big question. I think they are created all the time. We all experience crucibles but what do we do at the back end of them? Do we learn from them? Do we extract wisdom from them? I have been puzzling about how do we create within our institutions the capacity to understand what goes on when organizations or individuals face crucibles. It isn’t a question of how do we create them; they happen and happen almost all the time. Do we think of them as a dream so that when we wake up and brush our teeth it vaporizes or do we think about the dream and learn from that? It is the same thing about the crucibles. Having to fire people, being fired, being shipped to an office you don’t like, thinking that you have been demoted when maybe you haven’t. It’s a matter of how organizations can use the crucibles of everyday life and extract wisdom from them to make organizations organically learn from the experiences they’re undergoing. My concern is how do we use everyday crucibles which we’re not sometimes conscious of.

So leaders have to seek out uncertainty?

You can’t create Mandela’s Robben Island or John McCain’s experiences in Vietnam. They are extreme.

You can’t be held responsible for the era in which you live.

President Clinton was always slightly envious that he didn’t have a war to deal with, to prove himself. Teddy Roosevelt was the same though he had a few minor skirmishes.

There is a view that the group of leaders around now were shaped by the sixties which was a fractious time in the US. They didn’t experience a crucible like World War Two or the depression.

You could look at this generation of geeks and say that their formative period ended at 9/11 but it started in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and the end of the cold war and then the introduction of the world wide web. So it’s not a generational thing is a shorter period.

If we are creatures of circumstance doesn’t that mean we are powerless?

That’s right. One of our grand old men of leadership John Gardner had been a marine in the second world war and worked with President Johnson. He was shy and introverted but was plunged into leadership. I interviewed him during a week when I interviewed a couple of young guys who had to lay off 25 of their friends from their business. I asked Gardner what he thought would create more angst, more emotional charge, being in the war or firing some of your closest friends. He was unsure.

But events of the cosmic scale, when you’re thinking about what might happen to the world, is profoundly different than being sent to work in another country for your employer.

Your experiences in the war were obviously a crucible for you, but did you emerge from that thinking of yourself as a leader?

I do think of myself now as a thought leader. I came from a very poor family so after the war I was thinking that I’d got through it and felt okay about what I was as a young officer and then I was stationed in Frankfurt after the war with a jeep and an apartment and it was quite a good life. What I had learned was discipline and a sense of self mastery. I felt I took care of myself and was motivated to learn more. I thought now I am ready to face life, but I didn’t feel as though I was a leader. I stayed on until April 1947. It shaped me so much and pulled from me things I may never have experienced. I was very shy and felt that I was a boring human being and then in the course of being in the army I felt that I was more interesting to myself. It was a coming of age.

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