Leaders Under Fire: The Crucible Experiences

Trial by Fire

cru·ci·ble noun \ˈkrü-sə-bəl\

  • a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures.
  • a place or occasion of severe test or trial: the crucible of combat (Oxford Dictionaries)

Heading In To The Fire

Department Store WomenI was twenty-three years old when I was promoted to manage a department of thirty women in a department store.

Newly married with a baby on the way, I had never had so much responsibility.

The only direct training I had for this new role was a 3-day workshop put on by the company’s HR manager.

Through high school and college I volunteered for leadership roles in school and church, but previously had only managed a handful of kids in Vacation Bible School. I had worked in department stores since I turned 16, so “surely I was well ready to manage nearly three dozen women” – some of whom had worked at the store longer than I had been alive!

OK, maybe not!

Although I was confident (cocky?) at the time, in retrospect I can see how truly unprepared I was.

And this turned out to be my first crucible experience in leadership.

I failed in many ways during that first stint managing people, to the point that eventually I was reassigned to a non-management role!

Ouch! That really hurt!

To Sink or Swim

The store manager saw enough in me to promote me, but when he left to manage another store and a new manager came in, I was left to fend for myself as a new leader.

I had no mentoring, no guidance, and no feedback until I was moved out of leadership. This is no way to maintain success in business.

If a company is hoping to be successful, they must do more than just hope. If they are going to develop young leaders, they can’t just put them in situations and see if they sink or swim, there has to be some intentional process to evaluate, teach, and hone the raw talent that is there.

Anyway, back to the crucible…

The most valuable lessons for leaders happen when they face testing.

Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas describe the “white heat of a ‘crucible’ experience, in which [a leader’s] values are tested, often by adversity, and their competencies are honed, often at the risk of failure, for a future leadership role (Geeks &Geezers, 2002).”

Upon Reflection

When I look back to that first failed experience at leading people, I could have decided that leadership wasn’t for me. But instead, I did what Bennis and Thomas talked about:

  • I reflected on what went wrong
  • I thought about my communication style
  • I looked at how I handled conflict
  • I observed the way I motivated others and encouraged them to reach personal and organizational goals
  • And I spent several years in a non-management position while I studied management & leadership

I managed smaller teams, both professionally and as a volunteer, until about six years ago when I once again had over thirty people reporting to me. It was a much different experience this time, but not without its own crucible moments. Anytime people work together the potential exists for conflict, testing, having one’s values challenged and competencies pushed to the limit.

In the Iron Trenches, Not the Ivory Towers

Ivory TowerBut without the crucible there is no depth to our leadership.

Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through the experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

Leaders who experience relative ease or like academics who talk theory from ivory towers but have little practical, hands-on knowledge.

The Bennis-Thomas model of leadership development includes these four elements:

  1. The context is the era in which leaders are developed.
  2. The character is the values that individuals bring to leadership.
  3. The crucible of experience is the place of testing where leaders are prepared.
  4. The competencies for leadership are the proficiencies for future leadership that are shaped in the crucible.
We repeat this cycle throughout our leadership lifetimes, as we reflect on our failures and trials, make adjustments and sort out who we are as leaders. Some good questions for reflection come from David McKenna’s book Becoming Nehemiah (2005):
  • What is the crucible that has had the most influence on my leadership today?
  • How was my character tested?
  • What competencies did I learn in the crucible that are most evident in my leadership today?

I believe I’m a better leader today because my leadership journey has not been easy. It makes me a better listening, increases my sensitivity to those around me, and solidifies my values & character.
In my experience, the key is intentionally reflecting on those difficult leadership situations so that we actually learn and improve.

So what types of crucible experiences have you lived through long enough to be able to tell them? How have the hot fires of experience shaped you? If you haven’t been crushed, beaten, scorched, and tormented as a leader, then why not? Why have you avoided the quickest way to success as a leader? I would love to hear your stories!

Todd Conkright is Owner at Cornerstone Global Training & Performance Solutions
He serves his clients by building strategies that lead to net gains
EmailLinkedInTwitter |  Web
Image Sources: lindacarole.com, fashionistaspalace.com, enterpriseirregulars.com

One response to “Leaders Under Fire: The Crucible Experiences

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