Crucibles of leadership development

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It’s not the first time I’ve written about this, but, as I have processed the results of y research over the past few months, I thought I’d give it another go.

The term crucible is how Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas described intense transformational experiences that had been encountered by leaders. I set out to explore what significance crucibles might have in the development of Christian leaders.

Fourteen leaders were kind enough to give me a few hours of their time and allowed me to interview them at some length about their leadership journeys. The leaders were drawn from several denominational backgrounds, they have led mostly in the British Isles, they had an average age of 61 and included twelve men and two women. Most of them have led in local churches but the sphere of leadership for others has been wider.

They described various kinds of experiences which I classified under three main headings:

  • New territory: learning to lead was sometimes a step out of the comfort zone – a couple of leaders referred to a ‘baptism of fire’; for some of them, their leadership journey has involved significant paradigm shifts, both for them and for the people they have led.
  • Reversals: leaders are not exempt from challenging personal circumstances such as loss or the reversal of their plans. In addition there are particular challenges that come with being a leader: some of the leaders have had to deal with conflict, rejection, or disappointment.
  • Isolation: leaders undergo seasons when they are unable to lead, perhaps because of illness. They may also encounter ‘wilderness’ times, out of the limelight, or times of spiritual struggle like the famous ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’

Crucibles have a part to play in shaping both who the leader is, in terms of his or her character and relationship with God, and also what the leader does, in terms of his or her calling.

  • Character: at times it take a crucible to reveal character issues that need attention. This can happen in crucibles of failure, but also in crucibles of success. In fact it is possible for a leader apparently to be successful in one area of life, say their public ministry, while failing badly in another.
  • Spirituality (or the leader’s relationship with God). An intense crucible experience can drive a leader into a greater degree of dependence on God: the crucible becomes a means whereby the leader learns to cultivate trust in God. For some leaders, various crucible experiences allowed what they already believed about God to take on an ‘existential intensity’. Leaders also described remarkable, life-changing experiences that had helped them grasp God’s love for them.
  • Calling: some leaders (not all) experience God’s call as a dramatic experience, not unlike the call of some of the great leaders and prophets of the Old Testament, whose lives were redirected as God intervened at a particular point in time.
  • ‘The Stamp’: some leaders find that their leadership takes on a particular mark or stamp – perhaps a particular emphasis comes to define or shape what they do, as their convictions are forged in the crucible.

Crucibles, then, are intense, transformative experiences that contribute to the shaping of a leader, often playing a significant part both in shaping who the leader is and in shaping the leader’s calling. In some senses they function as intensive learning opportunities where leaders learn about themselves, about God and about their leadership.

But they are not everything. Leaders – like everyone else – are often shaped in more gradual, perhaps almost imperceptible ways through the relationships and commonplaces of life.

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