Geeks and Geezers in Action

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Nov 22, 2014

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through the experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
Helen Keller

Warren G. Bennis is one of my favorite authors on leadership. He has written over 25 books. But when I read the article he co-authored with Robert S. Thomas in the Harvard Business Review (September 2002) titled “Crucibles of Leadership” which is an excerpt from their book “Geeks and Geezers,” I knew they had discovered a profound insight. It is that insight which I have been pondering for over ten years that I want to share with you today.

Bennis and Thomas have spent their lives studying leadership. They found that some people emerge with stellar leadership influence while others sputter and sputter without ever really reaching their fullest potential.

They looked at older and younger leaders, “geeks and geezers” – their affectionate shorthand which they used to describe each group. These two groups had very different approaches about “paying their dues, work-life balance, the role of heroes, and more.”

But the geeks and the geezers “ … told us again and again how certain experiences inspired them, shaped them, and, indeed, taught them to lead.”

As they continued their research they learned that “ … one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances. Put another way, the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.”

Bennis and Thomas call these “crucible experiences” whether young or old, the leaders they interviewed “ … were able to point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that had transformed them and had become sources of their distinctive leadership abilities.”

Their definition for a crucible is “ … a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of identity. Crucibles can be traumatic but they can also produce life change through slow and consistent influence.”

I remember reading these words the first time and reflecting back over my life trying to recall the experiences that changed me forever. My intent is not to claim that my experiences produced in me outstanding leadership skills (I am still learning) but I must admit, however, that any leadership abilities I do have were enhanced by the crucibles in my own life.

Several crucibles did indeed change me forever. My father’s death when I was in high school changed the direction of my life as well as the values which ordered my life choices.

Meeting Evie and being married to her for over 47 years has contributed more to the person I have become than the combined influence from every other person I have ever met. She is my best friend and my closest confidant. 

When one of our twin sons died in our fourth year of marriage, Evie and I encountered an unexpected crucible experience. Only by God’s grace and our faith in Him did we make it through. But we were never the same. As Bennis and Thomas say, those kinds of things never leave us exactly the same. Our view of life and priorities and family and God were all changed as we walked through that experience. 

We have faced many more crucibles as the years have passed by. They are inevitable for all of us. Sometimes they come slowly and quietly yet other times they bombard us from all directions. Now would be a good time to look back over your life. Whether you are a geek or a geezer, the crucibles you faced have undoubtedly helped form who you are today.

Bennis and Thomas would agree with Lou Holtz who said, “Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of  
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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