What do musicians Eric Clapton and Miles Davis, the Hell’s Angels, Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, and the Mormons have in common with great CEOs? Each makes leadership seem like magic, when it’s really about practicing on the job every day, and learning from every experience.

How someone learns from adversity and grows from experiences that might destroy others was the journey that Robert Thomas, a professor at Tufts University and executive director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance Business, took builders and suppliers on during his fascinating presentation at the Builder 100 conference this week in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“Most leaders can’t explain what they do,” says Thomas, who has interviewed plenty of them for books that he’s written on the subject. But what they have in common is, in his words, “learning how to practice while you’re performing,” and using the experience of learning to improve upon one’s leadership. Experience, in fact, is the key to the professor’s thesis on leadership: Thomas notes, for example, how Clapton regretted not practicing his guitar playing more in his youth, and not seeking other musicians and mentors who could help him go beyond his own estimable talent.

“Talent is rarely enough” to be a leader, says Thomas, because it cannot fully prepare a person for an unpredictable future or how best to respond to it. Indeed, “practice can trump talent” is one Thomas’ key rules of leadership. The others are “experience is a leader’s best teacher” and “great leaders are distinguished by personal learning.”

During his presentation, Thomas showed two short video clips of leaders who took harsh experiences to heart. One, a federal circuit court judge named Nathaniel Jones, recalls how as a teenager he benefited from the brutal editing of a sports column by a mentor who continued to “correct” Jones throughout his life.

The second leader shown was Amazon.com COO Jeff Wilke, who recalled reaching out to a community after an accident at a chemical plant that he worked for killed an employee. (A Builder 100 attendee who had worked with Wilke corroborated this story, noting that Wilke was even more affected by this experience than Thomas had indicated.)

“The lesson both of these people learned was through listening,” said Thomas, who added that leaders “put themselves in the path to learn.”

Thomas believes a common attribute among leaders is their resilience. He sees this in terms of how these people recognize the tension between where they are and where they want to be, how they reshape that tension to their advantage, and how they resolve tension constructively.

To achieve this considerable workplace feat, Thomas identified five ingredients that combine to make great performers: talent, ambition, grasp of method, having a great teacher, and feedback. This last ingredient is sometimes the hardest for leaders to receive because, on one hand, they get very little of it, and on the other, what they get they often don’t trust.

Consequently, the most successful leaders must carve out what Thomas referred to as a personal learning strategy for themselves, which asks and answers two fundamental questions:  “Why do I lead?” and “What am I trying to accomplish?” Leaders, observed Thomas, know early in the game what motivates them, but this strategy requires a dedication and openness to learning, a self-awareness and “ownership” of aspirations, and a certain perspective about oneself.

He recounts how Boston Celtic Bill Russell as a boy was dropped off after school at a local library, where he learned to recognize the differences in styles between painters Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Russell decided that this “signature of recognition” was something he wanted for himself, too.

This is where two disparate groups — the Mormons and the Hell’s Angels — also come into play for Thomas, because they use what he calls “crucible experience.” Such experiences often revolve around dealing with rejection and makes participants into the people they are. “Experience is what you make of it,” said Thomas, quoting Aldous Huxley.

John Caulfield is a senior editor at BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Phoenix, AZ.