The Crucible Experience


Leaders are made in the trenches, not in the boardroom. 

Definition: Crucible


1. a container of metal or refractory material employed for heating substances to high temperatures

2. a severe, searching test or trial

Have you been through adversity? Faced trials or situations that changed the way you lead or do business? Some of the best leaders have; in fact, one of the defining qualities of a good leader is an ability to adapt and respond to adversity, sometimes in the most extreme sense.

Trial by Fire

Personal and professional trials are not wasted on the leader who is willing to creatively adapt to circumstances. Leaders are made in the hardest of times when values and resolve are tested. At the beginning of my Executive MBA program in 2015 I read the book, Crucibles of Leadership by Robert Thomas, and over the last months, I have revisited this book during a crucible of my own.

What is a crucible experience?

Simply put, it is an experience that leaves a leader refined by fire or forever changed; sometimes a crucible looks like loss or adversity and sometimes, it looks like success. Crucibles of Leadership has been one of the more impactful books of our program, aside from all the analysis and number-crunching, as it provides insight into not just survival, but progress after we face difficult times as leaders in business. Gleaning lessons from any uncomfortable, awkward or even life-altering situation is the essence of growth, especially for anyone in the position to lead others.

Four Essential Skills

Thomas identifies four essential skills that are common among leaders who have the ability to excel in difficult circumstances, and they are listed below.

  1. Engaging others in shared meaning; when times are tough, look to trusted advisors for advice, listen to employees, keep your ears open and remain grounded.
  2. Use a distinct and compelling voice, rely on authenticity and your own story. Tell the truth and be open.
  3. A sense of integrity: priorities shift during crucible experiences until balance is restored. Allow for empathy and rely on honesty.
  4. Adaptive capacity or applied creativity – this simply means the ability to engage in complex problem-solving that sometimes includes a rapidly changing climate.

These skills are ones that can be practiced and honed over time; however, relying on the basics of engagement, authenticity, integrity and adaptation are the important survival tools for a leader who finds themselves in the middle of a crucible. Whether the crucible is terrible or wonderful, it is temporary and the storm will pass. Rely on the essential elements of character until balance is restored. Understand that a new normal and performance standard will be built from the fire.

References: Crucibles of Leadership by Robert Thomas, Published by Harvard Business Review Press, February 2008.
Gleaning lessons from any uncomfortable, awkward or even life-altering situation is the essence of growth, especially for anyone in the position to lead others

Written By Brynn Scarborough for Island Sun Times Magazine

February 2017 Issue, for more information, visit





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