One thing I’ve seen extraordinary leaders do is teach others through their own personal stories of transformation. Some leaders do this well; others end up sounding self-justifying or – worse – ego-centric. I believe one of the untapped resources a leader has for teaching and mentoring others are the valuable lessons in is his or her life story and the wisdom gained from facing adversity.
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 enriched sense of character.
As Warren G. 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.”
Most of us find ourselves in a difficult situation at some point in our lives. We may be undertaking new tasks, confronting new challenges, or working at a new pace or with new degrees of responsibility. In each of these cases, there are heightened stakes for success or failure.
Such experiences can be extremely stressful and may cause us to challenge our underlying assumptions about who we are and what we stand for. A crucible has the potential to have you reexamine your values, recognize themes that reoccur in your life or challenge your principles.
Why can some people extract wisdom from even the harshest experiences while others continue to flail? Perhaps Charles Darwin put it best:
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Crucibles set the stage for adaptation. We are given the opportunity to develop new or enhance our competencies and capacity that prepare us for future challenges.
Some people are simply more adaptive than others and it can be intentionally learned. In many ways, our capacity to change hinges on our ability to think creatively — to look at a problem and spot unconventional solutions. We need to pause and respond vs. just react.
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.
In the work I do coaching leaders, we work through the hard lessons they’ve had to learn. We explore how they adapted to situations, and how they became stronger. They move from reactivity to responding. Then we discuss how their leadership crucibles can help others grow and develop.