In their book, Geeks and Geezers, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas suggest that there are two basic types of crucibles: ‘the ones you seek and the ones that find you.’ It’s like the difference between emigration and exile. You can go looking for challenges that will stretch and shape you, or you can wait around for the challenges to happen!
In the world of biblical leaders, I suppose Peter’s walking on water was a crucible experience that he chose (no one pushed him); but what the biblical leaders experienced was more often unsought.
Like Gideon’s encounter with the angel of the Lord in Judges 6.
The Book of Judges tells a sorry tale of the rapid disintegration of the fledgling nation of Israel after Joshua. Unlike the careful transition between Moses and Joshua, the era following the passing of Joshua and his fellow elders is marked by repeated cycles of unfaithfulness and suffering. The book gets its title from the twelve judges who were raised up to bring about a degree of rescue for the people for a time. Some of them get only a brief mention (like Shamgar) while others (not least Samson) are better known.
Gideon too is one of the better known judges. A member of the tribe of Manasseh, he starts as a timid man who is doubtful that God could use him, but he becomes bolder and more powerful. Following his success, he is faced with the opportunity to become king of Israel – something he refuses, although at the same time he sadly sowed the seeds of spiritual unfaithfulness by making an ephod which became an object of worship.
Before Gideon gets to deal with the Midianites, God asks him to start closer to home by destroying his father’s idols and replacing them with an altar to the Lord. This was to be a defining moment for Gideon and it came before any attempt to tackle the problem of the Midianite oppression. The Lord had to be restored to his rightful place first.
There is some suggestion that Gideon’s father, Joash, may have been the guardian of the town’s Baal cult: at any rate he was a committed idolator, as were the men of the town. It’s ironic that in Israel some people thought that reinstating the worship of the true God should have been punishable by execution! That was the background against which Gideon was called to act. In an act that, at a superficial first glance, appears to have nothing to do with the nation’s ‘real’ problem (- was that not the Midianites?!!), he was to take a stand against the idolatry of his family in a town where idolatry was the religion and woe betide anyone who defied its defenders.
Judges 6:27 records his action:
So Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the Lord had told him. But because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night.
It’s a simple and honest account of how Gideon navigated this crucible experience.
He obeyed – and managed to get ten of the family servants involved with him; but he obeyed fearfully. It seems to have been an early pattern in Gideon’s life. At the start of his story the angel of the Lord finds him beating out wheat in the winepress: he is getting on with work, but being cautious as he does so – hiding what he is doing from the Midianites. Later – when it comes to dealing with Midian, Gideon is a mix of obedience and hesitancy (I don’t think the fleece episode is meant to be understood as the positive model for seeking guidance we have made it out to be – at least not in the way we have made it).
What God asks Gideon to do is both daunting, given the anticipated hostile reaction, and spiritually significant. And it is through the successful (if fearful) navigation of this crucible experience that he begins to emerge as a leader.
This is the crucible of the challenging assignment. Tackling the Midianites – and with only a small number of men – would be a challenging assignment, but first Gideon would have to take a stand against the prevailing spiritual climate in his community. He would risk the hostility of his family and of the town. He would have to demonstrate, however fearfully, that the Lord was his God. Taking a spiritual stand locally came before taking military action on behalf of the nation. Becoming a mighty warrior (as the angel called him) started by tackling the idolatry of his family and community: an action reflected in his other name.
Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky have reminded us in Leadership on the Line that leadership – specifically leadership of change – is dangerous. They suggest that leaders can find themselves marginalised, diverted, attacked (did Gideon fear this?) or seduced. Leaders need to be prepared for these various kinds of resistance. They need to be ready for the crucibles of challenging assignments.
One other observation on this, particularly pertinent to younger, emerging leaders. In Authentic Leadership, Bill George writes about what he calls ‘Shooting Stars’ and ‘Golden Boys’. The first group are leaders who rise so rapidly that they don’t take time to learn from mistakes. They quickly move on to the next job, without needing to live with their decisions. They run when they see the crucible approaching. Eventually they find themselves at the top of some organisation, faced with a set of problems and unable to cope because they lack ‘the wisdom of the crucible’. The Golden Boys (and Girls) manage to charm their way to the top without ever getting their hands dirty along the way. When they get to the top, nothing has really prepared them for the challenges they will now meet.
Dodging crucibles is a way of short-circuiting your leadership.