For those learning to lead, experience trumps formal training. But some experiences matter more than others, as two unconventional but highly successful organizations — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club — have recognized.
Despite the general understanding that leaders learn from experience, only a few organizations, such as Toyota, Boeing and General Electric, have truly taken it to heart by putting programs into place specifically to take advantage of experiential learning. Most companies stay within a narrow comfort zone. They certainly encourage aspiring and emerging leaders to “get experience,” to take on “stretch” assignments and to take risks. But they provide precious little guidance on how to learn from experience — how to mine it for insight about leading and adapting to change over the course of one’s life. Organizations generally don’t look outside their industry, or business itself, for new approaches. Instead, a banking model of learning predominates — a semi-industrial process in which cost per unit is the key performance measure and knowledge is something deposited in aspiring leaders’ heads for later use.
That is unfortunate, because organizations are missing the opportunity to develop leaders by integrating their life and work experiences, especially those experiences the authors call “crucibles.” Crucible experiences can be thought of as a kind of superconcentrated form of leadership development. Surprisingly, the best examples of organizations that deliberately employ such alchemy do not come from the business world. The authors draw on lessons from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons, and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club to develop four lessons for helping to develop managers. First, both the Mormons and the Hells Angels demonstrate how it is possible to craft or convert core activities to serve as practice fields for leaders. Second, they engage in elaborate preparation before sending would-be leaders out into the field. Third, they provide a supporting infrastructure while members are in the midst of a crucible. Finally, they recognize the need for renewal in individuals and the organization.