Crucibles of Leadership
by Warren G. Bennis and Robert). Thomas
of leadership, we are fascinated with the notion of what makes a leader. W h y is it that certain people seem to naturally inspire confidence, loyalty, and hard work, wh i le others (who may have just as much vision and smarts) stumble, again and again? I t's a timeless question, and there's no simple answer. But we have come to believe it has something to do with the different ways that people deal with adversity. indeed, our recent research has led us to conclude that one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual's ability to find meaning in negative events and to ...view middle of the document...
The men on the night shift were supposed to get a coffee break at 10 PM. When the buzzer that announced the workers' break went on the fritz, management arbitrarily decided to postpone the break for ten minutes, when another buzzer was sched uled to sound. But one worker,"an old black man with an almost biblical name, Noah B.Cross,"
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had "an epipha ny;•as Harman describes it."He said, litera lly, to his fellow workers, 'I don't work for no buzzer. The buzzer works for me.It's my job to tell me when it's ten o'clock. I got me a watch. I 'm not waiting another ten minutes. I 'm going on my coffee break:And all 12 guys took their coffee break, and, of cou rse, all hell broke loose?' The worker's principled rebellion-his refusal to be cowed by management's senseless rule-was, in turn,a revelation to Harman:"The technology is there to serve the men, not the reverse;• he remembers realizing."I suddenly had this awakening that everything I was doing at the college had appropriate applications in business!'In the ensuing years, Harman revamped the factory and its workings, turning it into a kind of campus-offering classeson the premises, including piano lessons, a nd encouraging the workers to take most of the responsibility for running their workplace. Further, he created an environment where dissent was not only tolerated but also encouraged. The plant's lively independent newspaper,the Bolivar Mirror, gave workers a creative and emotional outlet-and they enthusiastically skewered Harman in its pages. Harman had, unexpectedly, become a pioneer of participative management, a movement that continues to influence the shape of workplaces around the world.The concept wasn't a grand idea conceived in the CEO's office and imposed on the plant, Harman says. It grew organically out ofhisgoingdown to Boliva r to, in his words,"put out this fire?' Ilarman's transformation was,above all, a creative one. lie had connected two seemingly unrelated ideas and created a radically different approach to management that recognized both the economic and humane benefits of a more
collegial workplace. H arman went on to accomplish far more during his career. In addition to founding Harman International, he served as the deputy secretary of commerce under Jimmy Carter. But he always looked back on the incident in Bolivar as the formative event in his professional life, the moment he came into his own as a leader. The details of Harman's story are unique, but their significance is not. In interviewing more than 40 top leaders in business and the public sector over the past three years, we were surprised to find that all of them- young and old-were able to point to intense,often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that had transformed them and had become the sources of their distinctive leadersh ip abilities.
of self-doubt. But whatever the crucible's nature, the people we spoke with were able, like...