“If I had not been in prison, I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult task in my life, and that is changing yourself.” Nelson Mandella
A few years ago, I read a fascinating book, Geeks and Geezers, by Warren Bennis and Bob Thomas. In it they discuss their research on the role of the “crucible” in the lives of all great leaders. Let me explain.
Growing up, Harry Truman never thought of himself as a leader, nor did anyone else. With “eyeglasses thick as the bottom of a Coke bottle,” historian David McCullough writes that Truman couldn’t try out for school sports and mostly stayed home, working the farm, reading or playing the piano. Friends thought he was a sissy, and so did he. When he graduated high school, his family had run into hard times and he remained on the farm, the only president of the 20th century who never went to college.
But, of course, his life changed forever when, as a young adult, he signed up for the army during World War I. He was shipped off to France as the head of an artillery battery, and there for the first time in his life he was forced to lead men through moments of danger. His initial test came on a rainy night when the Germans dropped an artillery barrage close by. Harry’s troops panicked, thinking they were being gassed by the enemy. They fled like cowards. In the frenzy, Truman’s horse fell over on him and he was nearly crushed. Seeing his comrades flee, however, strength suddenly filled him. He pushed his way out from under the horse, and screamed for his men at the top of his lungs…shaming them to come back and finish the job they were supposed to do. Suddenly, they stopped in their tracks, and returned, regrouping, then moving forward under Truman’s leadership. McCullough recounts that through the rest of their lives, those men were loyal to Harry Truman, their leader who refused to back down in the face of his own fear.
This was a crucible for young Harry Truman. According to McCullough, he discovered two vitally important things about himself that night. First, that he had plain courage inside; and second, that he was good at leading people. He hadn’t recognized these truths until this crucible. A crucible is a defining moment; a challenge that each leader gets to rise to or back down from; to face or flee. The dictionary defines it as a severe test of patience or belief; a vessel for melting material at high temperatures. It is taken from the same root as “crisis” which the Chinese have made synonymous with the word “opportunity.” This is why it defines them. Like Harry Truman, every great leader along the way faces a crucible. They embark on a journey, conquer their dragon and return transformed.
During the mid-1990s, U.S. military services struggled to meet their enlistment goals. Most of them made their services more appealing, and easier to enlist young men and women. That is, except for the Marines. They embraced this idea of a “crucible.” They toughened up. General Charles Krulak introduced “The Crucible” to Marine training—an incredibly grueling fifty-four straight hours of live-fire exercises, long marches and sleep deprivation at the end of basic training. Only after this defining experience are they considered Marines. Potential recruits rallied to the idea and the corps, alone among the services, saw its enlistment shoot up.
I believe we under-challenge young leaders. Somehow, inside of all true leaders we know that a defining moment—a crucible—is required. We cannot run from those moments ourselves, nor can we shelter students from them either. Let me pose some questions to you:
1. What have been your crucibles, on your leadership journey?
2. What opportunities for a crucible do you offer to those you lead?
3. How do you help emerging leaders evaluate, interpret and make sense of their crucibles?
I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
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My favorite leadership quote seems apropos for some current political stories, for my own personal journey, and for some readers – perhaps you – this week.
Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner write, “Name any great leader, performer, scientist, athlete, activist, citizen. Chances are that the crucible of that person’s crowning achievement was some distressing crisis, wrenching change, tragic misfortune, or risky venture. Only challenge produces the opportunity for greatness.” Leadership Challenge, p. 76
Some leaders in Congress and in Detroit bowed out this past week, as the Bunsen burners beneath the crucibles in which they found themselves, were heated to unbearable levels. On a personal level, Jennifer, Jack and I will head west from Michigan this week for a two-year stint teaching at Cal Berkeley. Leaving my mom and two daughters feels like a “wrenching change,” and starting in a new place feels like quite a “risky venture.” So, it has me thinking about that crucible idea. Although we pick “risky ventures,” we generally don’t choose to have distressing crises, wrenching changes, and tragic misfortunes. But we do have some choice about how we will respond to all of these instances of strife. So, what can we do in the crucible to allow the heat to transform us so that we’ll actually become a new best self?
I have three thoughts:
1. Pick the crucible, the holding vessel. I will never ever forget the first time I got back-stabbed in politics. I felt naked, felt like the whole world was watching and that many would silently judge me to be guilty of my worst fears: I wasn’t good, smart or special at all. I was and would be beaten. I’ll never forget the friends who were there for me. The most common characteristic of those whose support I remember is that they were willing to feel my pain; they were there in the first place, and they didn’t run away – including to a land of platitudes and happy talk. If you’re in crisis, pick the friends who won’t preach or pretend but who will simply be there for you. (If a loving God is available to you, how fortunate you are.)
2. Assert for yourself that you will come out stronger, better. Re-read that quote from Kouzes and Posner as often as necessary. It is profound wisdom that “only challenge produces greatness.” And it sure helps to envision greatness even in the darkest hour. (Golf nuts: how about Rory McIlroy? After a total heart-breaking and embarrassing collapse at the Masters, he said the day after that he thought this might help him build his character. He quoted Muhammad Ali about repeating affirmations. And yesterday he absolutely soared under pressure. Talk about challenge and greatness!)
3. Pay attention, with as much openness as possible, to what life’s trying to teach you. As my former business partner M.A. Hastings was fond of saying, “don’t leave the loss without the learning.” Instead, actively seek to learn and to grow.
I pray for those like Anthony Weiner or Arnold Schwarzenegger or the others whose crises are so public. I think that if I judge that Arnold or Edwards or Kwame are undeserving of forgiveness and incapable of transformation through the crucible of their suffering, then how – but through the same hubris I might condemn in them – can I honestly believe that I can be transformed in character? Am I so much better than them? Or is life such that when we lose ourselves for a time, perhaps that is our awesome chance to find ourselves. I’m open to finding a new self in the challenges ahead, because that seems to me to be at the very heart of
Leading with your best self.
Tags:challenge, crises in leadership, Dan Mulhern