The Crucible: Challenge, Character and Leadership



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.