Crucibles of Leadership

Crucibles

Here is an excerpt from a classic article (2002) written by Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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As lifelong students of leadership, we are fascinated with the notion of what makes a leader. Why is it that certain people seem to naturally inspire confidence, loyalty, and hard work, while others (who may have just as much vision and smarts) stumble, again and again? It’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 learn from even the most trying circumstances. Put another way, the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.

The skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.

Take Sidney Harman. Thirty-four years ago, the then-48-year-old businessman was holding down two executive positions. He was the chief executive of Harman Kardon (now Harman International), the audio components company he had cofounded, and he was serving as president of Friends World College, now Friends World Program, an experimental Quaker school on Long Island whose essential philosophy is that students, not their teachers, are responsible for their education. Juggling the two jobs, Harman was living what he calls a “bifurcated life,” changing clothes in his car and eating lunch as he drove between Harman Kardon offices and plants and the Friends World campus. One day while at the college, he was told his company’s factory in Bolivar, Tennessee, was having a crisis.

He immediately rushed to the Bolivar factory, a facility that was, as Harman now recalls, “raw, ugly, and, in many ways, demeaning.” The problem, he found, had erupted in the polish and buff department, where a crew of a dozen workers, mostly African-Americans, did the dull, hard work of polishing mirrors and other parts, often under unhealthy conditions. 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 scheduled to sound. But one worker, “an old black man with an almost biblical name, Noah B. Cross,” had “an epiphany,” as Harman describes it. “He said, literally, 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 course, 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 classes on the premises, including piano lessons, and 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 Bolívar 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 of his going down to Bolivar to, in his words, “put out this fire.” Harman’s transformation was, above all, a creative one. He 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. Harman 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.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

In 2002, Warren Bennis was a Distinguished Professor of Management at the University of Southern California and the author of the forthcoming book Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership, with Patricia Ward Biederman (Jossey-Bass). He died in 2014 at age 89.

Robert J. Thomas is a managing director in the Accenture Institute for High Performance, as well as in Accenture Strategy Talent & Organization. He is the author of eight books on leadership and organizational change, including Crucibles of Leadership (Harvard Business Press, 2008), Geeks and Geezers (with Warren Bennis, Harvard Business Press, 2001) and Driving Results through Social Networks (with Rob Cross, Jossey-Bass, 2009).

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