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.
Leaders learn how to lead from experience. Formal training can help, but it’s no substitute for learning on, and off, the job. While that insight makes intuitive sense, a wealth of management writing confirms it. Pioneering scholarship by Warren Bennis, Edgar Schein, Chris Argyris, Donald Schon and Morgan McCall has helped make possible a sophisticated understanding of experience-based leadership development.
Some organizations have taken this idea to heart. For example, Toyota, Boeing, General Electric and MIT (through its Leaders for Manufacturing program) have put programs into place specifically to take advantage of experiential learning. But they, and a few others, are the exceptions.
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, that is, 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’s unfortunate, because organizations are missing the opportunity to develop leaders by integrating their life and work experiences, especially those experiences I call “crucibles.” The reference is to the vessels in which medieval alchemists attempted to turn base metals into gold. In Leading for a Lifetime (2007), Warren Bennis and I speculate about the process through which crucibles teach leadership lessons. For that project, I interviewed 70 leaders in business, the performing arts and sports (and analyzed stories from dozens more) in order to understand better the dynamics of experiential learning. I discovered that outstanding performers, no matter what their field of endeavor, evolve a “personal learning strategy” — a recipe based on heightened awareness of individual aspirations, motivations and learning style — that enables them to confront challenging situations and extract from them valuable lessons about what it takes to be an effective leader.
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.