These are the stories we share with you here. Some crucible experiences illuminate a hidden and suppressed area of the soul. These are often among the harshest of crucibles, involving, for instance, episodes of illness or violence. In the case of Sidney Rittenberg, now 79, the crucible took the form of 16 years of unjust imprisonment, in solitary confinement, in Communist China. Rittenberg later learned that his arrest came at the behest of Communist Party officials in Moscow, who had wrongly identified him as a CIA agent.
Thrown into jail, confined to a tiny, pitch-dark cell, Rittenberg did not rail or panic. Instead, within minutes, he remembered a stanza of verse, four lines recited to him when he was a small child:. Fluent in Chinese, he persuaded the guards to deliver him books and, eventually, provide a candle so that he could read. He also decided, after his first year, to devote himself to improving his mind—making it more scientific, more pure, and more dedicated to socialism.
He believed that if he raised his consciousness, his captors would understand him better. And when, over time, the years in the dark began to take an intellectual toll on him and he found his reason faltering, he could still summon fairy tales and childhood stories such as The Little Engine That Could and take comfort from their simple messages. His cell door opened suddenly in , after his first six-year term in prison.
And even after a second arrest, which put him into solitary confinement for ten years as retaliation for his support of open democracy during the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg did not allow his spirit to be broken. Instead, he used his time in prison as an opportunity to question his belief system—in particular, his commitment to Marxism and Chairman Mao. After I got out…the scales fell away from my eyes and I understood that…the basic doctrine of arriving at democracy through dictatorship was wrong.
Rittenberg Associates is a consulting firm dedicated to developing business ties between the United States and China.
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Today, Rittenberg is as committed to his ideals—if not to his view of the best way to get there—as he was 50 years ago, when he was so severely tested. All of our interview subjects described their crucibles as opportunities for reinvention—for taking stock of their lives and finding meaning in circumstances many people would see as daunting and potentially incapacitating. In the extreme, this capacity for reinvention comes to resemble eternal youth—a kind of vigor, openness, and an enduring capacity for wonder that is the antithesis of stereotyped old age.
To a person, they were full of energy, curiosity, and confidence that the world is a place of wonders spread before them like an endless feast. Robert Galvin, former Motorola chairman now in his late 70s, spends his weekends windsurfing. Arthur Levitt, Jr. And architect Frank Gehry is now a year-old ice hockey player. To understand why this quality is so powerful in a leader, it might help to take a quick look at the scientific principle behind it—neoteny as an evolutionary engine.
It is the winning, puppyish quality of certain ancient wolves that allowed them to evolve into dogs. Over thousands of years, humans favored wolves that were the friendliest, most approachable, and most curious. Naturally, people were most drawn to the wolves least likely to attack without warning, that readily locked eyes with them, and that seemed almost human in their eager response to people; the ones, in short, that stayed the most like puppies. Like human infants, they have certain physical qualities that elicit a nurturing response in human adults. When infants see an adult, they often respond with a smile that begins small and slowly grows into a radiant grin that makes the adult feel at center of the universe.
Oxytocin appears to be the glue that produces bonding. The power of neoteny to recruit protectors and nurturers was vividly illustrated in the former Soviet Union. Forty years ago, a Soviet scientist decided to start breeding silver foxes for neoteny at a Siberian fur farm. The goal was to create a tamer fox that would go with less fuss to slaughter than the typical silver fox. Only the least aggressive, most approachable animals were bred. The experiment continued for 40 years, and today, after 35 generations, the farm is home to a breed of tame foxes that look and act more like juvenile foxes and even dogs than like their wild forebears.
The physical changes in the animals are remarkable some have floppy, dog-like ears , but what is truly stunning is the change neoteny has wrought in the human response to them. The keepers and the foxes appear to have formed close bonds, so close that the keepers are trying to find ways to save the animals from slaughter. Fortunately, not all crucible experiences are traumatic. In fact, they can involve a positive, if deeply challenging, experience such as having a demanding boss or mentor. Judge Nathaniel R. Jones of the U. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, for instance, attributes much of his success to his interaction with a splendid mentor.
That mentor was J. Maynard Dickerson, a successful attorney—the first black city prosecutor in the United States—and editor of a local African-American newspaper. Dickerson influenced Jones at many levels. For instance, the older man brought Jones behind the scenes to witness firsthand the great civil rights struggle of the s, inviting him to sit in on conversations with activists like Thurgood Marshall, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, and Robert C.
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Rather than just feel beaten down, they turned it around. Dickerson was both model and coach. His mentor also expected the teenage Jones to speak correctly at all times and would hiss discreetly in his direction if he stumbled.
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Jones found life-changing meaning in the attention Dickerson paid to him—attention fueled by a conviction that he, too, though only a teenager, had a vital role to play in society and an important destiny. Another story of a powerful mentor came to us from Michael Klein, a young man who made millions in Southern California real estate while still in his teens, only to lose it by the time he turned 20 and then go on to start several other businesses.
His mentor was his grandfather Max S. Klein, who created the paint-by-numbers fad that swept the United States in the s and s. Klein was only four or five years old when his grandfather approached him and offered to share his business expertise. In our interviews, we heard many other stories of crucible experiences. Seemingly out of nowhere, Coleman had the idea to preempt the violence by suggesting that the protesting students take down the flag, wash it, and then put it back up—a crucible moment that even now elicits tremendous emotion in Coleman as he describes that day.
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Gardner, who died earlier this year at He identified his arduous training as a Marine during World War II as the crucible in which his leadership abilities emerged. Architect Frank Gehry spoke of the biases he experienced as a Jew in college. Jeff Wilke, a general manager at a major manufacturer, told us of the day he learned that an employee had been killed in his plant—an experience that taught him that leadership was about much more than making quarterly numbers. So, what allowed these people to not only cope with these difficult situations but also learn from them? We believe that great leaders possess four essential skills, and, we were surprised to learn, these happen to be the same skills that allow a person to find meaning in what could be a debilitating experience.
First is the ability to engage others in shared meaning. Consider Sidney Harman, who dived into a chaotic work environment to mobilize employees around an entirely new approach to management. Second is a distinctive and compelling voice. Third is a sense of integrity including a strong set of values. Here, we point again to Coleman, whose values prevailed even during the emotionally charged clash between peace demonstrators and the angry and strong former football team members.
The ability to grasp context implies an ability to weigh a welter of factors, ranging from how very different groups of people will interpret a gesture to being able to put a situation in perspective. Without this, leaders are utterly lost, because they cannot connect with their constituents. Douglas Ivester, who succeeded Roberto Goizueta at Coca-Cola, exhibited a woeful inability to grasp context, lasting just 28 months on the job. Contrast Ivester with Vernon Jordan.
Hardiness is just what it sounds like—the perseverance and toughness that enable people to emerge from devastating circumstances without losing hope. Klein built it into Transoft Networks, which Hewlett-Packard acquired in Consider, too, Mickie Siebert, who used her sense of humor to curtail offensive conversations. He drew on his personal memories and inner strength to emerge from his lengthy prison term without bitterness. It is the combination of hardiness and ability to grasp context that, above all, allows a person to not only survive an ordeal, but to learn from it, and to emerge stronger, more engaged, and more committed than ever.
These attributes allow leaders to grow from their crucibles, instead of being destroyed by them—to find opportunity where others might find only despair.
Lifelong Learning Matters
This is the stuff of true leadership. Robert J. Thomas is a managing director of Accenture Strategy. Warren Bennis Robert J. September Issue Explore the Archive. The Idea in Brief What enables one leader to inspire confidence, loyalty, and hard work, while others—with equal vision and intelligence—stumble? The Idea in Practice The Crucible Experience Crucibles force leaders into deep self-reflection, where they examine their values, question their assumptions, and hone their judgment.
The Many Shapes of Crucibles Some crucibles are violent and life-threatening encounters with prejudice, illness ; others are more positive, yet profoundly challenging such as demanding bosses or mentors. Essential Leadership Skills Four skills enable leaders to learn from adversity: 1. They drew a circle that shut me out, Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win, We drew a circle that took them in! A version of this article appeared in the September issue of Harvard Business Review. Want to see the other articles in this list? Subscribe Now I'm already a subscriber.
Sign In Forgot Password? I'm a subscriber, but I don't have an HBR. Unfortunately, that means we have to temporarily suspend subscriber syncing. We apologize for the inconvenience. Enter your subscriber email address. We need a little more information to find your subscription. Continue I want to try again with a different email address. It is easy to say that people need to keep learning throughout their careers. The practicalities are daunting.
Learning for Personal Development
WHEN education fails to keep pace with technology, the result is inequality. Without the skills to stay useful as innovations arrive, workers suffer—and if enough of them fall behind, society starts to fall apart. That fundamental insight seized reformers in the Industrial Revolution, heralding state-funded universal schooling.
Later, automation in factories and offices called forth a surge in college graduates. The combination of education and innovation, spread over decades, led to a remarkable flowering of prosperity. Today robotics and artificial intelligence call for another education revolution. This time, however, working lives are so lengthy and so fast-changing that simply cramming more schooling in at the start is not enough. People must also be able to acquire new skills throughout their careers. Unfortunately, as our special report in this issue sets out, the lifelong learning that exists today mainly benefits high achievers—and is therefore more likely to exacerbate inequality than diminish it.
If 21st-century economies are not to create a massive underclass, policymakers urgently need to work out how to help all their citizens learn while they earn. So far, their ambition has fallen pitifully short. The classic model of education—a burst at the start and top-ups through company training—is breaking down.
One reason is the need for new, and constantly updated, skills. Manufacturing increasingly calls for brain work rather than metal-bashing see Briefing. The share of the American workforce employed in routine office jobs declined from The single, stable career has gone the way of the Rolodex. Pushing people into ever-higher levels of formal education at the start of their lives is not the way to cope.
Although a vocational education promises that vital first hire, those with specialised training tend to withdraw from the labour force earlier than those with general education—perhaps because they are less adaptable. At the same time on-the-job training is shrinking.
In America and Britain it has fallen by roughly half in the past two decades. Self-employment is spreading, leaving more people to take responsibility for their own skills. Taking time out later in life to pursue a formal qualification is an option, but it costs money and most colleges are geared towards youngsters. The market is innovating to enable workers to learn and earn in new ways. Providers from General Assembly to Pluralsight are building businesses on the promise of boosting and rebooting careers. Massive open online courses MOOCs have veered away from lectures on Plato or black holes in favour of courses that make their students more employable.
By offering degrees online, universities are making it easier for professionals to burnish their skills.
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Such efforts demonstrate how to interleave careers and learning. But left to its own devices, this nascent market will mainly serve those who already have advantages. Online learning requires some IT literacy, yet one in four adults in the OECD has no or limited experience of computers.
Skills atrophy unless they are used, but many low-end jobs give workers little chance to practise them. If new ways of learning are to help those who need them most, policymakers should be aiming for something far more radical. Because education is a public good whose benefits spill over to all of society, governments have a vital role to play—not just by spending more, but also by spending wisely. Lifelong learning starts at school.