In interviewing more than 40 top leaders in business and the public sector over the past three years, we were surprised to find that all of them--young and old--were able to point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that had transformed them and had become the sources of their distinctive leadership abilities.
We came to call the experiences that shape leaders "crucibles," after the vessels medieval alchemists used in their attempts to turn base metals into gold.
Harvard Business Review includes the article in its book, 10 Must-Reads on Leadership (though a search will find it online).
I came to wonder
Do I need to endure a crucible to become a great leader?
Do you need to endure a crucible to become a great leader?
Names like Harvard and Bennis saying that all the top leaders they interviewed, suggest you do need it. It's in the must-reads!
But crucibles are hard and painful. More importantly, most of us can't force an unplanned trauma to befall us. Do you have to get lucky to have the bad luck of a disaster to develop you?
More of a problem, as a leadership coach and teacher, I see clients and students use the perspective of needing a crucible to excuse complacency and mediocrity: "If only I faced a disaster I could be great too. Maybe one will befall me one day and I'll get my chance. Until then, I have to accept myself as I am."
As a leader and entrepreneur myself, I could emotionally feel the motivation to blame outside circumstances and stop challenging myself. I could also rationally see the danger of accepting that perspective and stagnating.
I could also rationally see I only needed one counterexample to show you don't need a crucible.
Steve Martin may not be the first person you think of as a leader. He has neither held public office nor a high position in an organization chart.
His on-stage and on-camera skills make it easy to overlook the organizational and leadership skills necessary to accomplish what he did. He was the first to tour nationally to sold-out arenas in comedy, won a Kennedy Center Honor, a Mark Twain Award, an Honorary Academy Award.
As Comedy Central's number six of all time greatest stand-up comics, he has influenced decades of performers--actors, musicians, writers, comedians, thought leaders, and more, not to mention his fans. Movies he directed, produced, and acted in have made the better part of a billion dollars.
I think he qualifies as someone who successfully leads people from small performance groups, to movie businesses, to millions of people to think, act, and laugh.
His memoir, Born Standing Up, wonderfully recounts his development from an unremarkable suburban childhood to global stardom. It recounts the challenges he took on, how he worked through them, his external journey, and his internal one.
Amid all his achievement, I don't see a crucible. He knew what he wanted and he worked through challenges to achieve it, but never faced what I would call a crucible.
In a sense, his career has been one long challenge--developing his voice, changing the standards of his craft, filling seats, and so on. Could you say his career has been one long crucible?
You can redefine a word to mean whatever you want, but to call an entire career a crucible undermines its meaning. Besides, and perhaps most importantly, it misses that overcoming those challenges, however difficult, has probably been incredibly rewarding and a source of growth, fun, and more.
That doesn't sound like a crucible.
It also sounds doable by any of us. It may be hard, but hard things that we love are the sources of our greatest joy and reward.
Instead of thinking I need a crucible, I've found that knowing myself gives me more than enough to develop and grow, if I use it to challenge myself to achieve what I value, even if it's hard.
I don't consider that article a must-read. It doesn't help me grow. On the contrary, it reinforces helplessness and stagnation--the opposite of my goals.
My example may not work for you. That's fine.
There is no shortage of leaders whose endurance of great challenges--jail, threats, firings, etc--helped mold them into greatness. They make for great stories.
My challenge to you is to find your counterexamples. They're out there. The more you find, the more you'll free yourself to grow. Who are your role models for great leadership who didn't need outside circumstances?