Crucibles of leadership
In June the Vlerick IMBa alumni board invited Robert thomas as keynote speaker at their annual Leadership Event. His extensive study concludes that great leaders are made and not born.

hw_a09_5In Crucibles of Leadership1+2, Robert J. thomas profiles successful leaders from all walks of life, focusing on the role experience has played in their success. Examples are drawn from business and politics as well as from the inner workings of the Mormon Church and the Hell’s angels.

Outstanding leaders are characterized by adaptive capacity, the ability to engage others and integrity. these talents are not static, nor gained for once and forever. they must be renewed continuously, for the simple fact that the circumstances leaders face change constantly.

Central to the book is the powerful idea of the crucible or that sort of transformative experience from which leaders extracted a new sense of self and a new panoply of tools and strategies for leading others. Sometimes these were tragic losses, sometimes immersion in a new culture or a relationship with a life-changing mentor… but they had always in common a rupture with the status quo.

However these experiences as such are not enough. the key thing remains what they learned from it and even more importantly, their approach to learning. Rather than to wait for the right moment to arrive, leaders will discover and exploit learning opportunities. the interviewed leaders described a powerful flywheel effect: once alerted to what it takes to draw insight from experience, they began seeing learning opportunities all around them.

According to research in expert performance, a thorough grasp of four ingredients is identified as essential for progressing from novice to adept: method, ambition, instruction and feedback a fifth ingredient, deliberate practice or in thomas’s terms, a Personal Learning Strategy, holds the key to eminence. Building on insightful and moving stories told by accomplished leaders, thomas offers probing self-assessments and innovative tools designed to help you develop your own Strategy.

Learning about learning makes it possible to take control of one’s education, to learn better and faster, and to adapt and grow across time, across circumstances and across organizations.

One of the book’s surprising findings is that practice trumps talent. Talent matters, but even the most naturally gifted still have to learn, and one of the most important things a leader needs to learn is what he or she stands for: what he is made of, what he believes in, what lines he will never cross. But the right combination of ambition, instruction and feedback can turn someone with modest talent into a serious competitor. the key lies in practicing as strenuously as you perform – and practicing while you perform. In business a well as in other fields, outstanding performers are remarkably attentive to the opportunities for polishing basic skills and testing new ones that crop up.

Thomas’s idea is interesting and the book gives also some interesting exercises, which may help us to identify our personal style. It is definitely an original and provocative view on the development of leadership.

1 Thomas, Robert J, Crucibles of leadership: how to learn from experience to become a great leader, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2008, 264 p.
2 Crucible = vessel, melting pot.

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