The Crucibles of Leadership

The ability to extract wisdom from challenging experiences distinguishes successful leaders from their broken or burned-out peers.

Difficult and, in some cases, career- or life-threatening events are called leadership crucibles. They are trials and tests — points of deep self-reflection that force you to question who you are and what really matters.

After interviewing more than 200 top business and public-sector leaders, authors Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas were surprised to find that all could point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that transformed their distinctive leadership abilities.

In Search of Leadership Gold

To a scientist, a crucible is a vessel in which substances are heated to high temperatures to trigger a chemical transformation (for example, a steel refinery’s blast furnace).

In the leadership context, think of a crucible as a transformative experience from which you can extract your “gold”: a new or altered sense of identity.

As Bennis notes:

“Just like the alchemists in history used crucibles in the hopes of turning other elements into gold, great leaders emerge in their own lives as a result of how they deal with their crucibles.”

Crucibles set the stage for adaptation. We are forced to develop new competencies that prepare us for future challenges.

In many ways, our capacity to change hinges on our ability to think creatively — to look at a problem and spot unconventional solutions. Adaptive leaders can entertain opposing views. They learn to thrive in the face of uncertainty and negativity. They can tolerate ambiguity and consider multiple options, without defaulting to short-term thinking or premature decision-making.

Viewed in retrospect, a crucible may become a defining moment in your life, even if you cannot recognize it as it’s happening. Ultimately, it’s an opportunity to question your most basic assumptions and values, and determine how you want to show up in the world.

From Principles to Practice

Business experts once believed we could master leadership skills by reading books and taking classes. It slowly dawned on them that we practice leadership on the job. We learn to be effective leaders by interacting with other people and groups.

Thomas offers three important insights in Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader(Harvard Business Review Press, 2008):

  1. Practice can trump talent.
  2. Outstanding leaders devise a strategy for transforming crucibles into learning.
  3. Organizations can grow leaders faster by helping them learn from experience.

Discovering Your Crucibles

It’s almost impossible to take stock of yourself without guidance from a trusted friend, mentor or coach. To be truly self-aware, you need someone to hold a mirror so you can observe past and present behaviors. That’s why activities like peer coaching and mentoring, or working one-one-on with a coach are a great way to get the objectivity you need to identify and analyze the crucibles that you’ve faced as a leader and how they have impacted your leadership style.

Coaches often ask their clients questions like the ones below:

  • What was the greatest crucible of my life?
  • Why was this experience so challenging for me?
  • What was the most stressful, challenging or hard-to-endure point in my story?
  • How did I resolve the crucible experience at the time?
  • In retrospect, how would I reframe it today?
  • What resources did I have at the time, compared to those I have now?
  • Which emotional scars must be healed for me to become a better leader?
  • What fundamental insights did my crucible teach me?

Processing your past struggles can help you face the future with greater confidence and wisdom. What was your greatest crucible? I’d love to hear from you about it.

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