The Crucibles of Leadership

“Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him.”– Aldous Huxley 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. Characterized by a confluence of threatening intellectual, social, economic and/or political forces, crucibles test your patience, belief systems and core values. When you’re open to learning from mistakes, problems and failures, you become a stronger leader. You gain followers’ trust, and they’re eager to produce their best work. 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. 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 values, question our assumptions and hone our judgment. We can emerge stronger...

The Past as Prologue: How Experience Shapes You

“Many leaders point to their childhoods as the source of important ideas and values, and the time when they began to develop emotional energy and edge.” – Noel M. Tichy, The Leadership Engine Life is full of daily lessons. We interpret experiences; tag them as good, bad or neutral; file them into memory (or not); and create stories about ourselves. Our stories are, in fact, quite loosely “based on a true story,” as the tagline boasts in movies and books. It’s not about what actually happened, but how we remember and form the story that joins our library of experiences. As Gail Sheehy notes in New Passages: “The mind is formed to an astonishing degree by the act of inventing and censoring ourselves. We create our own plot line. And that plot line soon turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Psychologists have found that the way we tell our stories becomes habitual. Our perceptions of ourselves and others dictate how our stories define, defend and justify our actions and identity. If you want to improve your self-awareness, start by examining your life stories. Deep psychoanalysis is not required! You can begin with some writing exercises or work with a trusted friend, mentor or coach. The Past Is a Map to the Future Each of us has values and assumptions about the way the world operates. We believe people are generous or selfish, friendly or competitive, in control of their destiny or victims of circumstance. These views are formed in early childhood as responses to past experiences. We seldom recognize the origins of these beliefs and rarely take time to examine...