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The Crucibles of Leadership - In Search of Leadership Gold

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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.

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.

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.

Buried Treasures

It’s inherently difficult for us to reflect on painful moments, so their lessons may be buried or forgotten on a conscious level. But pain forms memories that subconsciously affect our current behaviors.

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.

Conflicts, challenges and early-life difficulties all contribute to crucible moments. For many of us, a crucible may not initially appear to be a loss or hardship. But as you reflect on it, you’ll discover the many ways in which events influence your unconscious behaviors. Some underlying memories are carried into adulthood, undermining your coping skills until you acknowledge and understand their impact on your life.

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.

Begin the discovery process with writing exercises, which you’ll share and discuss with your coach or mentor.

Determine whether difficult childhood experiences are triggering strong emotional reactions in the present. In Finding Your True North: A Personal Guide(Jossey-Bass, 2009), Bill George, Andrew McLean and Nick Craig suggest writing a letter to yourself describes key crucibles in your life. Present these experiences in one continuous draft, taking as much time and space as you need to complete the letter. Tell the whole story: context, high point, what changed, the emotions you felt, and the consequences and aftereffects.

Answer the following questions as your write:

·    What was the greatest crucible of my life?

·    Why was this experience so challenging for me? (List all reasons.)

·    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?

From “I’ to “We”

Leaders often begin their careers with a strong drive to achieve and succeed. They focus on themselves, their performance and the results they want to achieve. As they mature and rise to higher responsibilities, there must be a shift from “I” to “we.”

Great leaders become teachers, role models and mentors, using their influence to groom others. They are ultimately rewarded with the gifts of authenticity, compassion and humility.

As you gain greater self-awareness from your writing exercises, add the following questions to the assignment:

·   How have my crucible experiences enabled me to discover my passion for making a difference in the world?

·   How do my crucibles affect my view of my leadership abilities?

·   Can I pinpoint examples of leading from an “I” vs. “we” perspective?

·   How much time do I spend focusing on others vs. myself?

Be sure to review the answers with your coach or mentor.

You can develop these qualities by working with a professional coach. The investment is well worth the reward: your ability to influence the future, your career and your personal-development capabilities.

Are you working in a company where executive coaches provide leadership development to help leaders put positive leadership into action? Does your organization provide executive coaching for leaders who need to be more positive? Positive leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to create a more fulfilling future.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “Am I an emotionally intelligent and mindful leader who helps individuals and organizations achieve their highest potential, flourish at work, experience elevating energy and achieve levels of effectiveness difficult to attain otherwise?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching to help leaders develop more positive teams.

Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help leaders nurture mindful conversations in the workplace. You can become a mindful leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company or law firm.

Working Resources is a San Francisco Bay Area Executive Coaching Firm Helping Innovative Companies and Law Firms Assess, Select, Coach, Engage and Retain Emotionally Intelligent Leaders; Executive Coaching; Leadership Development; Performance-Based Interviewing; Competency Modeling; Succession Management; Culture Change; Career Coaching and Leadership Retreats

...About Dr. Maynard Brusman

Dr. Maynard Brusman

Consulting Psychologist and Executive Coach|
Trusted Advisor to Executive Leadership Teams
Mindfulness & Emotional Intelligence Leadership Development Expert

Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist and executive coach. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies select and develop emotionally intelligent leaders.  Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded Dr. Maynard Brusman "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development.

“Maynard Brusman is one of the foremost coaches in the United States. He utilizes a wide variety of assessments in his work with senior executives and upper level managers, and is adept at helping his clients both develop higher levels of emotional intelligence and achieve breakthrough business results. As a senior leader in the executive coaching field, Dr. Brusman brings an exceptional level of wisdom, energy, and creativity to his work.” — Jeffrey E. Auerbach, Ph.D., President, College of Executive Coaching

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