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Leadership is born out of a crucible

“It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed the habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulty.  Great necessities call out great virtues.” – Abigail Adams


Future first lady Abigail Adams wrote those words to her thirteen-year-old son and future President, John Quincy Adams, in 1780. Warren Bennis, who Forbes called “the dean of leadership gurus,” points out in his 1989 seminal work “On Becoming a Leader,” that Adams understood that leadership is born out of a crucible, testing and ultimately transforming one’s character. Bennis died in Los Angeles in 2014 at age 89, but what he taught is timeless and a worthy framework for anyone aspiring to be a leader.

Bennis’s research puts forth the proposition that leaders are made, not born, and that they share five common traits.

The first is the crucible in which, he contends, leaders enter with certain attributes contending with whatever is thrown at them to emerge stronger, more optimistic, and open to experience no matter the struggle of the crucible. Non-leaders can succumb to cynicism and hopelessness and, rather than being transformed, they transmit their negative feelings.

The second trait is the ability to engage others through creating shared meaning in a vision adopted by followers as their own.  This requires the leader to have a high degree of empathy in defining a reality that aligns with the dreams and aspirations of followers. This is the essence of work: a productive collaboration between a diverse group of people. Only people work, everything else in life functions.

Leaders have a distinctive “voice.” Bennis points out that “voice” is a collection of things, including self-awareness, purpose, self-confidence, a willingness to have ideas challenged, a perceptive interest in others, and an abundance of emotional intelligence.

Leaders have integrity and never compromise it.  Integrity is defined as your moral compass, the ability to judge between what is right and wrong and act accordingly.  Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed flawed executives in powerful positions trade their moral compasses for personal gain, resulting in an economic and/or organizational meltdown.

The final trait common in leaders is “adaptive capacity.”  Adaptive capacity is the ability to process information on the fly, many times under chaotic circumstances, and make good decisions. There is the person that stays cool under pressure and intently focuses on solutions or capitalizing on opportunity.  I’ve found effective business leaders have a unique combination of instincts and experience which builds into the adaptive capacity Bennis identified. When emotions of fear and loss overtake logic gleaned from experience and self-control, bad decisions are made and irreparable damage can occur.

In the end, leadership is equal to character and the path to becoming a leader is arduous and authentic.  Bennis made this point and future business leaders are indebted to his tireless lifelong work on the subject.

Patrick Burke is the managing principal of Burke Group, a Rochester-based retirement plan consulting & administration, actuarial services and compensation consulting firm. Contact him at [email protected].