Failing in the crucible of success

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about crucibles of leadership – those experiences which test and transform a leader. The term normally conjures up some kind of harsh experience in fact not every crucible is painful.

Success can be a crucible – and it’s possible to fail in the crucible of success.

Hezekiah was an essentially good king in Judah. He got to witness the remarkable destruction of Sennacherib and his Assyrian invaders; and he experienced a supernatural healing, going on to live a further fifteen years as God responded to his prayer (see Isaiah 38).

Upon his recovery he received envoys from Babylon who had come to find out what had happened. The biblical text observes that ‘God left him to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart.’ Motivated by pride (see 2 Chronicles 32), he welcomed them and showed them his treasure house with its precious metals, spices and oil.

Sadly, he was judged for his pride, though judgment was deferred as he humbled himself.

A leader’s response to success and prosperity are as significant as his/her response to failure and adversity.

  • Success can distort our hearts, leading us to forget that apart from God we can do nothing of significance. It can lead us to become proud, not only to forget who God is, but to forget who we are. One of the leaders I interviewed for my research told me that he had been reluctant to consider himself as a leader (even though he led) and that part of the reason for that was his observation of people whose success and status changed them for the worse: their ego took over as they were increasingly celebrated as leaders.
  • External success might draw a blind over what may be going on in the hidden parts of our lives. Another leader I spoke to recalled a time when his public ministry was flourishing while his home life was in chaos. The more his ego was stroked as his ministry prospered, the more he worked and the less he invested in his family.
  • External success might even lead us to think that the hidden and inner parts of our lives don’t really matter too much: after all, look at how successful we are.

So, leaders, don’t just reflect on what you can learn from the hardship experiences and how they might be shaping you: pay attention to how you handle prosperity and to what your response to success says about you.

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and a man is tested by his praise (Proverbs 27:21).

PS (20/6/16) – Came across this – from Abraham Lincoln – yesterday:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.


Crucibles of leadership

I’ve been exploring some of the things that happen along the way to shape and direct Christian leaders. It’s meant interviewing 14 Christian leaders and having them talk to me about their leadership journey. I’ve already written about contours of a leadership journey – you can read it here.

What about crucibles – experiences that test or transform a leader? The leaders in my interviews have experienced a range of what I think we could call crucible experiences. These have included setbacks and failure, health issues, new territory, a sense of stripping brought about through illness or even retirement and even their own conversion and call to Christian ministry.

Here are four ways that crucibles work in a Christian leader’s life:

1 – Crucibles help to refine a leader’s character. Sometimes they reveal character issues that might otherwise never be acknowledged or addressed; sometimes they may be used by God to help deal with the character issues that have been revealed. Some leaders lead from a strength of personality (they live life out loud); but at times the strengths which give their leadership such vigour may have a shadow side.

2 – Crucibles help to deepen a leader’s spirituality. Some of the leaders have spoken about profound and sometimes quite remarkable experiences of God. They have talked about being reassured of his love for them and of learning to trust him and learning to find strength in him. One leader suggested that ‘probably one of the greatest things that you need to learn on leadership… is the ability to strengthen yourself in God.’

3 – Crucibles help to define a leader’s calling. A leader may experience their conversion as a night to day crucible experience by which life’s priorities are changed. For some, calling is a gradual dawning to the realisation ‘this is why I was born.’ For some, the call to a specific role emerges from a particular encounter with God. And it can be the strength of that sense of call that helps a leader to navigate difficult experiences.

4 – Crucibles help to shape a leader’s ministry. Several leaders spoke about considerable paradigm shifts along the way: their ministries today look quite difference from when they set out. Sometimes a crucible experience adds a depth or an extra dimension to a leader’s ministry. A ministry theme may emerge from the crucible.

There are plenty of examples of crucible experiences in the lives of the biblical leaders. For Joseph, the years spent languishing in an Egyptian prison, betrayed and forgotten, tested his faith in the promises of God. For Moses, a dramatic encounter with God after 40 years in exile led to the recruitment of a reluctant leader. For Nehemiah, news of the miserable state of Jerusalem propelled him into a season of prayer and to a place where God put a plan of restoration into his heart.

Leaders: how has God shaped you along the path of your leadership journey?

Crucibles and biblical leaders

I have written before about the concept of crucibles, which I have lifted from the work of Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas (my doctoral research project is on the significance of crucible experiences in the development of Christian leaders). Bennis and Thomas have suggested that,

Crucibles are, above all, places or experiences from which one extracts meaning, meaning that leads to new definitions of self and new competencies that better prepare one for the next crucible.

You can read a bit more about the idea here.

Over the next wee while (translation: undefined amount of time) I am going to blog a bit about a series of biblical leaders who encountered some form of crucible experiences. It would be great if you felt free to add your comments on the stories I’ll be looking at and the ways the concepts connect with your own life.

Here are the 8 leaders I’ll be writing about:

  1. Joseph – tested by the word of the Lord.
  2. Moses – experiencing God’s call after 40 years in exile on the back of a failed attempt to establish his leadership.
  3. Joshua – his apprenticeship under Moses is followed by an encounter with the Commander of the Lord’s army.
  4. Gideon – fearful, reluctant leader, commissioned by the angel of the Lord
  5. David – the crucible of having to wait while Saul clung onto the throne; also the crucible of failure.
  6. Nehemiah – his life direction changed as he was broken by news of the ruins of Jerusalem.
  7. Jesus – tested in the desert.
  8. Paul – dramatic encounter with the risen Christ that turned him 180 degrees.

So stay tuned. And – especially if you are a leader – get involved and help create a conversation.


Crucibles of leadership

If you want a dictionary definition, try this one:

a place, time or situation characterized by the confluence of powerful intellectual, social, economic or political forces; a severe test of patience or belief; a vessel for melting material at high temperatures.

The concept of leadership crucibles was developed by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas just over 10 years ago, in their book, Geeks and Geezers.

The Geeks in the title were leaders, mostly under 35 at the time of the book’s publication while the Geezers were over 70 – two distinct generations who had grown up in very different eras. Bennis and Thomas noted some clear differences between the two generations of leaders – the impact of era. They found that the Geeks were more ambitious, were more concerned to find balance in life, and were less interested in ‘heroes’.

(The study is already over ten years old – it would be interesting to explore similar themes now).

Whatever the differences produced by the impact of era, Bennis and Thomas were struck by similarities between the groups, not least what they came to refer to as a crucible experience. All the leaders in their research had gone through at least one intense, transforming experience.

The nature of crucibles can vary greatly. One of the leaders in the study had spent 16 years in prison, on charges of being a spy. At the same time, a crucible could take the form of a mentoring relationship.

Here is some of what Bennis and Thomas say about crucibles:

  • the term is elastic and is defined by the person who undergoes the transformation.
  • some crucibles are sought out – people look for challenges; other crucibles come looking (the difference between emigration and exile).
  • crucibles are places for essential questions to be asked (who am I? how should I relate to the world?).
  • they are places of reflection
  • they are places where one transcends self-regard
  • they are places of choice
  • the test is often gruelling
  • there is a risk of failure
  • there is always a prize

Crucibles are, above all, places or experiences from which one extracts meaning, meaning that leads to new definitions of self and new competencies that better prepare one for the next crucible.

Key to emerging successfully from a crucible, is what Bennis and Thomas call ‘adaptive capacity’: they suggest that it is ‘the essential competence of leaders’.

More on that – and more – tomorrow!

Meantime – especially if you are a leader – what is your experience of crucibles? In what way has one or more crucible played a part in shaping you as a leader?

The crucible is a dividing line, a turning point, and those who have gone through it feel that they are different from the way they were before.