USC News

Menu Search

Critical Crucibles

by content

As Sky Dayton tells the story, he once spent 80 frustrating hours trying to set up an Internet connection, an occasion that produced an epiphany: Shouldn’t the process of logging onto the Net be fast and simple?

It was a pivotal moment that Marshall School leadership guru Warren Bennis calls a crucible – a transforming event or test that individuals pass through and derive meaning from in order to learn, grow and lead.

Entrepreneur Dayton’s crucible set him on the path to founding Earthlink.

Crucibles are at the center of a new leadership theory Bennis has drawn from his most recent research and described in the book “Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders” (HBS Press, 2002), co-authored with Robert J. Thomas.

Era, individual factors, adaptive capacity and persuasive ability often coalesce around a critical experience or event to shape leaders, the authors found.

“Situation and context are very important, even critical,” said Bennis, a distinguished professor of business and founder of the USC Leadership Institute. “There are certain qualities that transcend time, place and culture.”

Bennis and Thomas conducted the first comparative study of two very distinct groups to investigate those transcendent qualities: accomplished leaders between the ages of 21 and 35, and men and women 70 to 93 who are still contributing significantly to professions, industries or society.

Through surveys and interviews with more than 40 successful individuals, “Geeks & Geezers” illustrates the metamorphoses of true leaders.

The authors turned to such “geezers” as the late former U.S. Ambassador Don Gevirtz; former SEC Commissioner Arthur Levitt Jr.; journalist Mike Wallace; and Muriel Siebert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

At 76, Bennis includes himself among this generation shaped by World War II and post-war prosperity.

In addition to Sky Dayton, contributing geeks include Motorola’s Elizabeth Altman; video game magazine publisher Geoffrey Keighley; Core Wealth Management CEO Michael Klein; and Embark.com executives Young Shin and Steve Chen.

The two groups – geeks and geezers – are very much products of their time, said Bennis.

Geezers were loyal and committed “company men.” Earning a living, providing for their families and climbing the corporate ladder were all-important to them. Their heroes were “giants in the sky,” such larger-than-life icons as Churchill, FDR and MacArthur.

Geeks find their heroes closer to home, among family, mentors and celebrities. They do not buy the model of total commitment to work that their parents shared. Geeks not only want to make a living, they want to make a life and a difference in their communities.

According to Bennis, work-life balance is profoundly important to the younger generation.

Despite era-based differences, both geeks and geezers insist they learned their most important leadership lessons through crucibles.

They have not merely overcome adversity or championed an opportunity, they have “learned how to learn” from experience. In fact, they all share the active pursuit of continual learning as a personal and professional lifestyle.

“The ability to find meaning and strength in adversity distinguishes leaders from non-leaders,” said Bennis. “When terrible things happen, less-able people feel singled out and powerless. Leaders find purpose and resolve.”

Bennis found such leaders share several essential qualities. They combine the ability to adapt to change with the ability to size up situations and people in ways that help them make good choices and avoid pitfalls. They remain optimistic and resilient.

Every one of the 43 men and women interviewed displayed a youthful curiosity and passion for life. In labeling this insatiable appetite for knowledge and learning, Bennis borrowed from zoology the word neoteny, meaning “the retention of youthful qualities by adults.”

Bennis said his zestful geeks and geezers assert an enduring confidence about the outcome of future events. Armed with this confidence, they are masters at engaging and recruiting others in shared meaning. Their voices ring of authenticity, conveying a sense of integrity and a moral compass, he said.

But, he added, these qualities are neither new nor unfamiliar to a reader versed in the literature of leadership. Historically, however, the leadership canon regarded these qualities singly rather than as an integrated system.

“Existing theories of leadership based on personality traits and situational explanations,” said Bennis, “simply cannot account for the rich data in front of us.”

Contact Douglass Gore at (213) 740-6881.

Critical Crucibles

Top stories on USC News