What are the Crucibles of Leadership?

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The ability to extract wisdom from challenging experiences or leadership failures distinguishes successful leaders from their broken or burned-out peers. It’s what transforms leaders into authentic leaders.

Difficult and, in some cases, career- or life-threatening events are called leadership crucibles. They are trials, tests and failures — points of deep self-reflection that force you to question who you are and what really matters. Characterized by a confluence of threatening intellectual, social, economic and/or political forces, crucibles test your principles, belief systems and core values.

“Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him.” – Aldous Huxley

When you’re open to learning from mistakes, problems and failures, you become a stronger, better leader. You gain followers’ trust, and they’re eager to produce their best work.

I’ve seen this in my own work as a coach. Transparent, honest leaders enjoy multiple benefits: learning, creativity, engagement, flexibility and effective communications. Those who take ownership of their role in organizational problems can decode the contexts in which they make choices and how to avoid repeating poor decisions.

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 of them — young and old — could point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that transformed their distinctive leadership abilities. (Leading for a Lifetime, Harvard Business School Press, 2007.)

Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Al Gore and Barack Obama have all been willing to talk about their contributions to national failures. As leaders, they thrived because they learned from their mistakes, which inspired confidence, loyalty and commitment even in adverse times.

Leadership crucibles require us to examine our principles and values, question our assumptions and hone our judgment. We have the opportunity to emerge stronger and surer of our purpose and ourselves, changed in some fundamental way when we face these situations head on.

One of the most reliable predictors of effective leadership is your ability to find meaning in negative events, learn from trying circumstances, and inspire others through a tenacious hold on life and learning. As Bennis and Joan Goldsmith state in Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader (Basic Books, 2010):

“Conquering adversity — and emerging stronger than ever — makes for extraordinary leaders.”

Many of us share our positive personal stories quite naturally. Many are reluctant to share their failures for fear of being misperceived, judged or vulnerable. It takes courage to share your leadership journey. But if you’re not doing it, you’re not sharing the reality of leadership.

Do you openly share your leadership crucibles? If not, what holds you back?

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