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BenGeek 06-8-126      


How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders


Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas

Harvard Business School Press, 2002, 221 pp.  ISBN 1-57851-582-3


Bennis is a well-known author and authority on leadership.  Thomas is an Associate Partner with the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change.  The book is about cross-generational leadership and learning.  Their model of leadership development grows out of interview-based research with 43 leaders – younger leaders under the age of 35, and leaders from the Builder generation, 70 and older.  Reflections include not just what makes leaders but what enables people to learn to live well in successive decades.  It is about human development. (Preface)


Geeks were the first generation to have grown up “virtual, visual, and digital.” (Preface) 


For many older people the world has jelled, closed.  It no longer carries the sense of new possibilities.  But for some, the sense of possibility and wonder has remained alive.  This quality the authors call neoteny.  (Preface)


One of the key concepts is the crucible, the high-pressured transformational experience common to all our leaders. (Preface)  “…if a person can not only survive but create positive meaning out of such experiences, she or he can grow into a durable, effective leader.  “History has certainly made it clear that adversity often separates winners from loser.”  “Among men in the older generation of leaders, World War II was often the defining moment in their lives.”  (Forward)


One.  Leading and Learning for a Lifetime

“The ability to learn is a defining characteristic of being human; the ability to continue learning is an essential skill of leadership.  When leaders lose that ability, they inevitably falter.  When any of us lose that ability, we no longer grow.” (1)


The leadership model is represented by a crucible, into which flow 1) the characteristics of the era and 2) everything that makes up the individual.  The crucible is a formative experience out of which one organizes meaning.  Leadership competencies flow out of the crucible.  (4)


“We see era as important, not because it defines individuals, but because it presents them with a shared history and culture and a specific arena in which to act.”  Eras are characterized by defining events or conditions.  “The last twenty years, marked by the advent of the Internet and the end of the Cold War, can be seen as one coherent era.” (10)


“The analog world was one that valued linear narrative and thinking.  It believed in organizational hierarchy and chain of command.  The digital world is nonlinear and has ditched the corporate pyramid for the flat organization.” (11)


“Older leaders were trained to think of the world in Newtonian, mechanical terms.  Younger ones tend to look at the world in terms of living organisms and biological systems….” (12)  The older generation valued experience; the younger values the “beginner’s mind” and fresh insights.  Geeks have more ambitious goals and place more emphasis on balance.  Geeks are much less likely to have heroes.  (13)


Both groups are avid learners, straining at limits.  Each leader in both groups had a turning point, an intense experience (crucible) that transformed his or her behavior and self-understanding.” (13-14)  “Leaders create meaning out of events and relationships that devastate nonleaders.” (17) 


“The one key asset all our leaders share, whether young or old, is their adaptive capacity.  The ability to process new experiences, to find their meaning and to integrate them into one’s life….” (18)  They are great at grasping context, of noticing things. (19)


Every one demonstrated neoteny, “the retention of youthful qualities by adults,” such as curiosity, playfulness, eagerness, fearlessness, energy, willingness to take risks, hunger for experience, courage, eagerness for the surprises of each new day. (20)


Two.  Geezers - The Era of Limits

“The rules for success were pretty clear: work hard, produce results, and you’ll get promoted and receive a pension….”  Provide for your family and set a good example for your kids….” (32)  Their parents lost their jobs in the depression so they focused on financial security.  Success was a steady paycheck. (33)


Military service left its mark.  Returning war heroes were mature, no-nonsense people.  (34-5) “Work was central to geezers’ social identity at age 25-30.”  (36)  Paying your dues meant enduring your situation or mastering job knowledge and demonstrating respect for those you followed.  (38)  The judgment of a superior or an elder had meaning.  (41)


Geezers were avid readers and their favorite books were ones of substance, classic works and great literature.  (42) 


Men focused more on work and less on family during working years.  Women stayed home, married, and kept the family together. (46)  “Geezers at age 25-30 were profoundly influenced by the larger-than-life heroes of their times.”


Three.  Geeks – The Era of Options (1991-2000)

“The world stage was chaotic and volatile.” (52)  Politics became entertainment.  The economy went on fast forward via the internet.  Geeks anticipate nine or more different employers during their lifetime.  Women flocked to the workplace.  The pace of business accelerated.  Enormous economic growth was unevenly distributed.  (54)  Organized religion receded in importance, although ‘spirituality’ and ‘meaning’ are in. (57)


Geeks have much bigger ambitions, e.g. to change the world, as well as get rich.  (58, 60).  They foresee a variety of careers and work settings and many models for relationships and families.  (62)  They measure success in terms of challenge, responsibility, and opportunity to make history.  “Work is a form of self-expression.”  (63) 


Geeks crave experience but do not believe it has to take time to get it.  They want to learn by just “doing it.”  (64) 


Geeks read industry and trade magazines, newspapers, online journals, thousands of emails, and the Internet.  They haven’t stopped reading but have started ‘viewing.’ (66-67)  [These reading patterns seem to represent ‘means’ (Geeks) vs. ‘meaning’ (Geezers). dlm] 


Geeks are “savvy and world-weary.”  They have seen much of the world, both via real-time TV and in person.  (72) 


Desire for balance in life is a common theme. (74)  Geeks live in a world dominated by celebrities but they have no larger-than-life heroes. (79)


They live in a transparent world and are sophisticated and worldly. (82)  Michael Klein on inspiring his workers to continue working for him: “Because people have been able to compress time frames so much and compress their road to monetary success so much, there need to be reasons for them being led….  They have to believe that they are changing the world, almost to that extent.” (83)


“Chaos isn’t just a theory, it is the current reality, and learning to live with, even love, it is an essential element of leading today.”  “If you’re not confused, you don’t know what’s going on.” “In a sense, the difference between the old-style organization and the new is the difference between golf and surfing.” (83)


Four. Crucibles of Leadership

Adaptive capacity is the most critical skill for leadership success. It includes critical skills such as the ability to understand context and to recognize and seize opportunities. (91) 


Leaders don’t get stuck in the crucibles but learn important lessons, including new skills that lead to new learning and achievement.  (93)  They not only survive but are inspired and strengthened. (94) 


Sometime crucibles are forced on leaders but the majority choose them, albeit without knowing what they will bring. (98)  Crucibles are places of reflection where one asks foundational questions and reflects on relationships with others. (99)  “The test is often grueling.”  There is a real chance of failure.  (100)  “Our study dealt only with people who had passed through their crucibles and had emerged stronger and surer than before.”  (101)


“Adaptive capacity is applied creativity.  It is the ability to look at a problem or crisis and see an array of unconventional solutions.” Leaders “can tolerate the nettle of uncertainty in situations where others long for closure.”  “Flexible, resilient people are not repelled by problems; they pounce on them, determined to find solutions….”  “Adaptive capacity allows individuals to confront unfamiliar situations with confidence and optimism.”  They “are not paralyzed by fear or undermined by anxiety in difficult situations.” (101-02)


Seeking out expertise, wherever they find it, is one of the strengths of almost all.  “Our geeks tend to be stalkers of first-rate mentors.” (104)


“Success is, first of all, an act of the imagination.  Whatever their age, our leaders realized that they were not limited by the roles they had played in the past or the ways they had been defined by parents, teachers or others.” (106)


“A crucible is a tipping point…where values are examined and strengthened or replaced, and where one’s judgment and other abilities are honed.”  “Often the transformational event in the crucible is a realization that one has power that affects other people’s lives.” (106)


“The transformation that our leaders described…was essentially a process of education.  Learning how to learn was one of the most valuable tools they took away from their crucible experience, and it was one of the all-purpose tools, along with creativity….” (117)  “The whole point of failure is to learn from it.” (118, quoting Sidney Harman)


Five. The Alchemy of Leadership

“All our leaders, whatever their age, brought to their crucibles four essential skills or competencies…adaptive capacity, the ability to engage others in shared meaning, a distinctive and compelling voice, and a sense of integrity (including a strong set of values).” “These are the qualities of leaders in every culture and context.” (121-22)


“However gifted, great leaders emerge only when they can find the proper stage, a forum that allows them to exercise their gifts and skills.” (123)


“More often than not, real leadership flourishes when faced with imminent threats and dangers.” (125 quoting Gerald Posner)  Perseverance and toughness are very important. (129)


Michael Klein spends much time cheerleading his knowledge workers.  He has no plant, no physical products.  His employees take home the company every night in their heads.  “If we had a breakdown of key talent walking out the door, we would be lost.” (133) [This is an important truth for many leaders to consider. dlm]


Creating Shared Meaning.  One CEO of Proctor & Gamble took a terrific fall by moving ahead with major changes before getting the company behind him.  He failed to engage others by creating shared meaning. (134)


“Stripped to its essentials, leadership involves just three things—a leader, followers, and a common goal.”  “Effective leaders don’t just impose their vision on others, they recruit others to a shared vision.”  Lingyunm Shao says “the essence of leadership is taking care of your subordinates.” (1337)


“A strong set of values and rules of conduct were common to all our leaders….” (141)  “What people respond to in leaders…[is] their conviction, their powerful sense of justice, and their passionate desire to do the right thing.”  “…they behave in ways that reflect their awareness of the value and rights of other people….” (142)


“Whatever else a leader must do, he or she must know where to draw the line and find a way to keep these three elements—ambition, technical competence, and moral compass—in balance.” (147)


Six.  A Passion for the Promises of Life

“…our leaders all enrolled others in their enthusiasms.  They had an aura about them, an energy.” (162)  [They had] “an openness to experience.  An unselfconscious candor.  A mischievous smile and contagious laugh.   Wit.  Resilience.  Curiosity.  Tirelessness.  An almost palpable hunger for experience and an incapacity for bored detachment.” (163)


“Their habit of extracting lessons from every situation was obvious….” (164)


“…leadership training can’t be an add-on.  It has to be embedded in the very fiber of the organization.” (171)


“Building and maintaining networks across generations, organizations, and cultures is a way to learn continuously….” (176)


Appendix A is a series of brief biographies of the leaders interviewed.  Appendix B includes the interview questions.



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