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By Robert J. Thomas

Harvard Business Press, 264 pages, $32.95

We learn from experiences. But where do those experiences come from? And how can we - and the organizations we work for - ensure that we get the right experiences and have the ability to pull out the right lessons?

Robert Thomas, executive director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance Business in Boston, argues that we need to be sensitive to crucibles - the transformative moments that shape us, like the vessels in which alchemists attempted to turn base metals into gold.

They can be momentous events shared by many people, such as wars and depressions, or individual challenges, such as the loss of a loved one, a demanding work assignment or a bankruptcy.

Crucibles require us to examine our values, question assumptions and hone our judgments.

Not all people, of course, learn from experiences. But those who make the most of crucibles can emerge stronger and surer of themselves and their purpose - enhanced in some fundamental way, Mr. Thomas contends.

It's an issue that surfaced in Geeks and Geezers, which Mr. Thomas co-wrote with leadership guru Warren Bennis a few years ago. But now he returns to explore the concept more fully in Crucibles of Leadership, interviewing leaders about their formative experiences and setting out as models for organizational development the unlikely pair of the Mormon's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.

"People who undergo a crucible and grow through the experience all share something vital: They don't become stuck. No matter how much they struggle, no matter how much they may grieve, and no matter how much they may chafe at finding themselves in situations they cannot immediately control, they are not paralyzed by difficult situations. Where others see chaos and confusion, they see opportunities to grow and learn," he writes.

He stresses that crucibles contain two valuable lessons: Individuals who emerge enhanced from the experience gain not only a lesson in leadership but a lesson in how they learn.

Although each crucible, ultimately, is personal, they share some characteristics. Indeed, after analyzing nearly 200 crucible experiences, he delineated three types. Some involve encounters with the new or unknown - he calls it new territory - and they sharpen an individual's alertness to new information and skill at making sense in times of confusion.

The second type - called reversals - involves loss, impairment, defeat or failure and teach both endurance and imagination. Finally, there are situations that involve an extended period of deliberation or contemplation, which he refers to as suspension; these challenge the leader to clarify his or her values and purpose in life.

In the crucibles, smart leaders also are sensitive to what is happening within them, and how they are learning. They realize how they learn best, and formulate a personal learning strategy that they will carry with them beyond the crucible. They recognize the best conditions under which they learn, and how to make the most of learning opportunities.

He finds the best leaders are "egoless learners." They are strong individuals, with healthy egos, but they refuse to let what they know stand in the way of learning new things. "They are constantly in search of new ideas and new ways of thinking about and solving perennial problems. Like trapeze artists, they let go in order to move forward - even when they're uncertain that the swing will be there to catch hold of at the precise moment it's needed."

His study also found that practise can trump talent in leadership as much as sports and performing arts. The right combination of ambition, instruction and feedback can turn someone with modest talent into a star. "In business as well as in the arts, outstanding performers are remarkably attentive to the opportunities for polishing basic skills - and testing new ones - that crop up in the midst of crucible experiences and day-to-day work. For them, the seam between practice and performance is invisible," he says.

Outstanding leaders make the most of crucible experiences by recognizing and transforming those experiences into lessons that keep them refreshed and responsive.

But smart organizations are realizing that they can develop more leaders - and develop them faster - by exposing them to crucibles and helping them to learn from experiences.

He champions experience-based leader development, which has been employed by companies such as Toyota Motor Corp., Boeing Co., and General Electric Co.

But the Mormon church and Hells Angels are also models: Because of restrictions on recruiting leaders from outside, each organization gives some members large territories to supervise, with time to grow.

"Paradoxical as it may seem for an organization widely regarded as anarchic, the Hells Angels is exemplary in its use of critical experiences to grow leaders," he stresses.

The book helps to take something we innately know - experiences shape us - and give it a better foundation. Readers will enjoy the stories of individuals facing different crucibles, and can make use of the extensive section on creating a personal learning strategy, which is presented in workbook fashion with chances to answer his probing questions. And as many organizations experiment with action learning and other ways to harness experiences in nurturing leaders, his book offers some instructive ideas.

In Addition: The notion of a moose on the table or an elephant in the room has become a common metaphor for work groups not acknowledging the real problems they face. In Moose on the Table (Bastian Books, 173 pages, $19.95), Jim Clemmer, a consultant based in the Toronto suburb of Thornhill, presents a fable of an executive with a dreadful boss and a company sinking because of a failure to set priorities or acknowledge reality. He offers some tools to help, and an inspirational story since, ultimately, it takes courage to overcome this failing. But for successful business fables there has to be a belief that what works in the book would work in reality; in this story, the hero initially gets fired for being honest, which is what most readers would expect - indeed, the reality they fear - and although in the fable the hero gets rehired and saves the day, that part does seem fantasy. Still, if people in a company or work unit want to improve their communications, this book offers some help.

Just In: Consultant Kevin Hogan shows how to read anyone's body language and decipher hidden meanings in The Secret Language of Business (John Wiley, 227 pages, $29.99).

In Lessons of a Lipstick Queen (Atria, 358 pages, $26.99), Poppy King, who started her own company at age 18 when she couldn't find the type of lipstick she wanted, tells her story and offers lessons on how to become more entrepreneurial.

In the third edition of How to Negotiate Anything With Anyone Anywhere Around the World (Amacom, 306 pages, $23.95), consultant Frank Acuff offers a comprehensive guide to customers, greetings, and styles in various countries.

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