In their 2002 book, Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas identified and to an extent popularized (at least in the leadership literature) the word “crucible.” As they defined it, a crucible was “an often difficult event” out of which leaders made meaning in ways that “galvanized” them and gave them their “distinctive voice.” Their claim for the crucible was considerable: that it was at the heart of their “new model of leadership.”
As I saw it then and continue to see it now there are at least four problems with the crucible at the center of the leadership narrative. The first is that not every leader has anything remotely resembling a crucible experience. The second is that some crucibles seem genuine – soul-searing experiences of dreadfully “difficult events.” But there are other crucible experiences even in Bennis’s and Thomas’s book that seem exceedingly tame in comparison, no more than the vicissitudes of lives fully lived. The third is the presumption that crucibles have a benign effect. Sometimes they do not. Sometimes difficult events have malignant effects. The fourth problem with the crucible at the center of the leadership narrative – no fault of Bennis and Thomas – is that the leadership industry has taken the word “crucible” and devalued it. The word and the idea that underpins it is tossed around far too freely and frequently, rather than being reserved for those instances in which it might authentically be applied. In this sense it resembles the word “charisma,” which, when German sociologist Max Weber claimed it, had a specific, strictly limited meaning – as in Jesus was charismatic. Now we use the word charisma constantly, more likely to apply it to some celebrity or someone we know with personal charm than to the real thing, an exceptional, even singular leader.
But…every now and then there is a leader to whom the word crucible genuinely does apply, who by every indication was forever changed, for the better, by an inordinate test, or trial, or tribulation. A genuinely great leader who served many years in prison, such Nelson Mandela, falls into this category, as does Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was felled by polio as rather a young man, never again to walk on his own.*
Vice President Joe Biden falls into this category as well. Decades ago he lost his dearly beloved wife and young daughter in an automobile accident. Months ago he lost his dearly beloved older son to brain cancer. This is a crucible. These are crucibles.
I do not claim that because of these crucibles Joe Biden ought to be the next president of the United States. All I am saying is that in the event crucibles, real crucibles, matter, Biden qualifies.
*Adolf Hitler, who also spent time behind bars, presumably similarly had a crucible experience, though with outcomes rather different from those that are the focus of Bennis and Thomas.