Warren Bennis, Leadership Crucible and Sidney Rittenburg

“A crucible is, by definition, a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of identity.”

-Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis is to leadership what Peter Drucker is to management and what Michael Porter is to strategy.

Central to Warren Bennis’s theory of leadership is concept of “crucible of leadership”. He describes it as…

We came to call the experiences that shape leaders “crucibles,” after the vessels medieval alchemists used in their attempts to turn base metals into gold. For the leaders we interviewed, the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, question their assumptions, hone their judgment. And, invariably, they emerged from the crucible stronger and more sure of themselves and their purpose—changed in some fundamental way.

Sidney Rittenberg is owner of Rittenberg & Associates, a consulting firm which he and his Chinese wife Wang Yulin operate. The firm provides assistance to businesses who work with Chinese companies.

Sidney was interested in communism and went to China during Second World War. He interacted with top Chinese Communist Party leaders during this period.  But he was accused of being spy in 1949 and was thrown in prison. He was put in solitary confinement; the cell was completely dark.

“In that sense, prison emancipated me”

-Sidney Rittenberg

Sidney managed to influence prison guards and got candle and some books from them. During his confinement, a poem by American poet Edwin Markham helped him to survive. He wrote book – Manage Your Mind, which is based on his experience of imprisonment

    They drew a circle that shut me out

    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout

    But love and I had the wit to win;

    We drew a circle that took them in.

In 1955, he was released from prison. After his release from prison, he stayed in China and was active supporter for cultural revolution. He was again imprisoned and was released in 1977.

These 16 years in prison was leadership crucible for Sidney. He returned to United States in 1980. But he never felt bitter about his experience of communist China and used his experience to start consultancy which help US companies who want to start business in China.

He wrote book on his Chinese experience – Man Who Stayed Behind.

“What’s more, Rittenberg emerged from prison certain that absolutely nothing in his professional life could break him and went on to start a company with his wife. Rittenberg Associates is a consulting firm dedicated to developing business ties between the United States and China. Today, Rittenberg is as committed to his ideals—if not to his view of the best way to get there—as he was 50 years ago, when he was so severely tested.”

-Warren Bennis

Lake Wobegon Effect and Normal Distribution

Gary Edward Keillor is an American author and radio personality. In his radio show Keillor created the fictional Minnesota town called Lake Wobegon, a small rural town in central Minnesota ( similar to Malgudi town of RK Narayan). He described it as “the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot not improve.”. In Lake Wobegon “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” 

Psychologist David Myers coined a term “Lake Wobegon Effect”. The Lake Wobegon effect is a natural tendency to overestimate one’s capabilities and see oneself as better than others.

While normal distribution may predict that very few people in given sample are above average, Lake Wobegon Effect shows that more than 90% of people feel that they are above average.

Chip Heath is psychologist from Stanford Business School and an author, he and his brother Dan have written book called “Switch” in which they say that…

  • Only 2% of high school seniors believe that their leadership skills are below average.
  • 25% of people believe that they are in the top 1% in their ability to get along with others.
  • 94% of college professors report doing above-average work.
  • People believe that they are at lower risk than peers for heart attacks, cancer, and even food-related illnesses, like salmonella.

This also explains why management students think that they can revolutionize corporate world, CEOs justify their salaries, politicians make tall claims etc. It is Lake Wobegon Effect.