The metaphor of a crucible (a container for heating materials to a high temperature or, a sever trial or test) is sometimes used when discussing the learning of leadership through our trials or experiences. The United States Marine Corps has a 54-hour trial that each recruit must complete; it is called The Crucible. Several years ago the San Jose Police Department’s recruit academy staff created a similar (though much shorter) test, during which recruits must work together while hiking, completing a ropes course, complete problem-solving exercises, and display leadership. This trial is also called The Crucible.
The leadership authors Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas examined learning leadership in this manner in their book Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn From Experience to Become a Great Leader. No doubt, learning leadership skills and developing our abilities through our own experiences is, for most of us, the most common way we develop our leadership practices. If we are lucky, we may be offered formal leadership training or instruction to supplement and build upon our experiences. But the key to learning from our experiences is, first, recognizing the opportunity in front of us and, second, making the effort to take advantage of the opportunity. Becoming a better leader requires a conscious effort.
If we stop and think about it, most of us have many, many opportunities over the course of our careers (let alone, our lifetime) to develop our leadership skills. How many of those opportunities did you recognize at the time, and take advantage of? I’ll share three opportunities I had during my police career, each coming at different stages of my career and requiring different types of commitments on my part.
During my first year as a sergeant I supervised a rather arrogant officer who repeatedly made poor decisions, though not of the severe variety. Most of the officer’s problems related to how they engaged with citizens, or handled calls the officer felt were frivolous. Over the course of several minor incidents (and our discussions about these incidents) the officer’s behavior began to border on insubordination. At one point, my lieutenant wanted to step in a begin formal disciplinary action against the officer. It would have been easy to let the lieutenant take charge, but it would have alleviated me of my responsibilities and an opportunity to grow as a leader. I asked the lieutenant to let me try a course of action with the officer. The lieutenant supported me (a leadership lesson in itself), and eventually the officer began to change the way they interacted with others. It took time and effort on both my part and the officer’s, but I like to think that we both learned a few things along the way. The most important part of this experience for me was that leadership requires the willingness to take on difficult situations.
Later in my career, while a sergeant in the Vice unit, I was assigned responsibility for an anti-human trafficking grant the department had received from the U.S. Department of Justice. This was at a time when the response to human trafficking was in its earliest stages, and few people understood what it would take to create and sustain an anti-trafficking task force. A huge part of this work involved creating relationships with federal law enforcement agents, and local organizations who served victims of trafficking. It was an excellent opportunity to develop my collaboration skills, but also required patience and commitment on my part. (And, to be honest, patience on the part of those who had to work with me!) I found the topic of trafficking, and how to respond to slavery, fascinating, and embraced the work with enthusiasm. In fact, I’m still involved in the anti-trafficking community. This engaging in this work took a lot of effort but also gave me tremendous opportunities to enhance existing skills, and identify new areas in which to develop skills. Ironically, this assignment was given to me after two other sergeants chose not to engage in the work. So leaders need to develop an eye for engaging in new areas of challenge; what are some of the new topics being discussed where you work?
The final experience I’ll share is when I was promoted to lieutenant and immediately assigned to command our department’s information technology unit. The problem was that at the time I had zero knowledge about anything to do with IT! Several major projects were in the works and technical decisions had to be made. Also, due to the quirks of how this unit had grown over time, my staff comprised sworn police officers, IT professionals who were employed by the police department, and other IT professionals who were employed by the city and therefore not technically in my chain of command.
The leadership crucible I faced included: how to engage a staff that (rightly so) often felt diminished by the rest of the department; how to make technology decisions in a field I knew nothing about, and; how to gain credibility among my staff which at times suffered their own internal squabbles. This was a huge challenge, but ultimately it was the greatest leadership learning experience of my career. I learned how to persuade engagement from reluctant team members, draw upon the expertise of others to help me learn, and how to balance input from a variety of sources offering technical advice. I was practicing what is known as adaptive leadership, though I didn’t recognize it at the time.
The common thread among these diverse experiences is that I recognized the opportunity before me and that I made the conscious effort to develop my leadership skills. I could have let the lieutenant take responsibility for the insubordinate officer. I could done minimal work to comply with the anti-trafficking grant and dismissed the opportunity to work with a variety of others. I could have taken command of the IT unit, listened to one or two of the most knowledgeable staff members and began making decisions about hardware and software.
But I didn’t. Instead I took advantage of these opportunities and tried to become a more effective leader. I certainly had frustrations and failures along the way, but the heat of these environments tested my abilities and resolve. Look for your own crucible! Then look for another. Leadership is a burden and requires a consistent effort. Recognize and embrace the opportunities before. This is how leaders learn from their experience, and the learning should never end.
What leadership crucible can you embrace today?