image of fire with a black backgroundCrucible has two meanings. First, it’s the container used in attempts to transform base metals into gold by alchemists of old. Second, a crucible tests a person who seeks to succeed at a significant quest; a source for testing our mettle. In their HBR article, Crucibles of Leadership, Bennis and Thomas write “the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.”

United States Marine Corps recruits knowingly prepare during boot camp for their Crucible—an event they must pass to become a Marine. Other times leaders have no foreknowledge and must face an unanticipated trial, such as responding to a crisis. 2021, for me, has been a crucible year and, no, the challenge had nothing to do with the ongoing pandemic. Reflecting on past months, I see strategies that supported me during the experience.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

When you need to face a trial, you can. Take inspiration from your past—“what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” are not just words in a song. One of many examples I’m able to draw upon was my “S1” swim qualification during Marine Corps bootcamp. Today, the USMC uses different terms to designate water survival and rescue certifications, although the process is similar.

Qualifying feats are additive. First, each Marine candidate must perform basic water survival skills in shallow, chest-high, and deep water, including a modified abandon ship move and a basic 25 meter swim. After the basics, a Marine must also swim 50 meters in deep water in full combat gear, then perform a passive rescue and tow another Marine for 25 meters. At the equivalent of the “S1,” a marine demonstrates how to rescue his or her self and rescue a distressed victim. At the time, I was the only female recruit who insisted on trying.

I’m pretty certain I wasn’t expected to succeed. We treaded water while the instructor explained the challenges a drowning person presents and how the rescuer might stay safe in the process. Without warning, he then ducked into the water and promptly yanked me under. With little air, I needed to subdue my “victim” and perform the rescue. Extracting myself from his grasp, I barely caught a breath when I was grabbed and drug below the surface again. Given my size and the difference in strength, the single option was to maneuver around, place the instructor in a choke hold, and arch my back to force him to float to the surface for a rescue.

Prior experience accomplishing difficult tasks gives us confidence in our ability to overcome. We gain self knowledge, and learn our strengths and limitations. In the midst of a crucible event, embrace the suck. Acknowledge reality and act. Move forward, through, over, or around. Trust that you can.

Put Your Mask on First

On virtually any flight and in every language, a pre-flight safety speech describes oxygen masks dropping in the event of emergency. There’s a reason flight attendants admonish passengers to “put your own mask on first,” before trying to help others. Passengers tend to ignore the spiel, unless they get a great flight crew that employs humor to grab attention. With laughter, listeners better retain the info. In an emergency, people may panic until any training kicks in.

In everyday life, another critical approach for overcoming a crucible experience is self care—the equivalent of putting our mask on first. Build resilience for the toll of demands from a long term event. Sleep, eat, exercise, meditate. We are better able to face a crucible with a reservoir of strength. One idea that often goes overlooked is to find our team. Who can support us as we face a trial? Consider the difference between people who might be cheerleaders (providing words of hope or encouragement) versus squad members (people with knowledge and skills who might actually pitch in). Part of self care involves knowing we don’t have to go it alone.

Practice Kindness

Several years ago, I used to fly every week. Post 9/11, when travel became challenging for both the seasoned and novice, I made the conscious decision to be the most cheerful person on the plane. I was pleasant to TSA and gate agents. I took delays in stride. I was helpful to moms and seniors. I lifted bags for those who couldn’t. Fellow passengers thought I was crew, expressing surprise to learn otherwise. Kindness is a choice, and we can practice kindness everywhere.

This year I “inherited” three adult dependents, two of which have dementia. When asked, I’ve said it’s sometimes like having a toddler or 5 year old who is older than me (and male). This new caregiving role requires tapping an ongoing well of kindness and compassion, under scenarios that could easily be dominated by frustration. Being kind isn’t just good for the recipient, it’s good for us. Demonstrating kindness lights up the pleasure and reward centers in our brains. We get a boost of serotonin and dopamine, leading to a sense of satisfaction. Being kind helps us feel good. In the midst of a crucible, practicing kindness helps us maintain equilibrium.

Be A Learner

With the right investment of time, commitment, learning, and willingness to act, almost anyone can become a brain surgeon. When we’re not brain surgeon, but we need to understand how our brain works, then we need to be open to learning. Being responsible for the new additions to my household meant understanding exactly what dementia is, how it’s diagnosed, how it progresses, and what this means for the family members who have it and the rest of us. I also needed a crash course in government systems and benefits.

Undergoing a crucible, we need to recognize what we don’t know and commit to learning. We can research, read, and ask experts. We should seek out “disconfirming” evidence for our own beliefs to broaden our view and understanding. We need to be open to thoughts and ideas we may not have considered. Practicing continuous learning in life and work equips us to search out critical information during a crisis, leading to sounder decisions and actions.

Embrace Essentialism

I highly recommend Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Greg’s book released the same year I faced a cancer journey. While I previously led a prioritized life, Essentialism extended this to a life commitment. Undergoing treatment that left me bereft of energy, I needed to choose the single thing I might accomplish on a given day.

When facing a crucible, a leader must consider where her or his particular gifts and talents deliver the “highest contribution.” Know what you can (or have to) let go and trust the tradeoffs will eventually balance out. We can’t and should not do it all. Essentialism encourages us to say no to the merely good, in order to focus on the best in life and work.

Whether a crucible involves a professional experience or life event, employing the five strategies will help leaders at all levels to rise to the challenge. My year involved multiple life events: death of a family member, estate work, incorporating more family into our home, dealing with guardianship and conservatorship, and handling medical needs of one person who just had his third surgery in six months. Yes, I let things go to prioritize the essential. I learned things. I practiced kindness. I focused on self care. I relied on the knowledge of past success. I’ve made it through. And no matter what you will face, you can, too.

Reference: Bennis, Warren and Thomas, Robert J. (2002). Harvard Business Review (online); https://hbr.org/2002/09/crucibles-of-leadership


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