The Crucible of Leadership By Pepper de Callier

One of today’s foremost authorities on leadership is Warren Bennis, Founding Chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California and author of 27 books and more than 2,000 articles on leadership.  In his book, On Leadership, Dr. Bennis states that, after many years of observing and interviewing leaders, they differ from other people in very distinct and identifiable ways.  First of all, they have a constant appetite for knowledge and experience—as their worlds widen and become more complex, so too do their means of understanding.  Further, he discovered that leadership usually emerged after some rite of passage, often a stressful one.  He calls this experience, this rite of passage which produces leaders, a crucible.

A crucible is a vessel used in laboratories and specialized manufacturing environments for melting materials or heating them to extremely high temperatures.  The word crucible is also used, as Bennis does, to describe a severe test or trial of patience, belief or capability, for instance.  Some enter it willingly, while others are thrust into by circumstances without notice.  For those who survive immersion in the crucible, Bennis feels that something magical happens that transforms an individual.  

Today’s crucible is varied in scale and scope.  It can be a government, a lost business deal, the loss of a leader or a loved one.  It could be one of the mundane occurrences in our daily lives such as a boring meeting, an unexplained action by someone, or a closed door. It could also be the request to do something unethical, or being asked to take on a project that is crucial for the success of your company, which is highly visible and will have many points at it which it can fail along the way unless everything works out perfectly.  It could even be when your boss asks you to give a key presentation to a group of very important, influential and well-informed people. The key differentiator, though, is that leaders will accept the challenge and look for meaning, for a lesson, or for a deeper understanding of themselves and others in these events versus just enduring the experience.  They will not allow negative experiences to define them.  Rather, they will use all of these experiences to help them “create” the leader in themselves. 

I have had several crucible events in my life and career and I can testify to the fact that they are life-changing.  What Dr. Bennis doesn’t go into in his writing, and what I want to stress here, is that although we may be frightened, depressed or threatened by the crucible, we must realize that it is a right of passage.  And, like so many events in life, sometimes all we have to do is focus on the structure of a solution, rather than being overwhelmed by perception—just focus on putting one foot in front of the other.  Someone once told me that 85% of success is just “showing up”—just having the courage to continue and not quit.  How I wish someone would have shared that wisdom with me earlier in my life when I was introduced to my first “crucible”.

To those of you who are facing your own crucibles I would say this: Be strong.  Be brave.  Work hard to find the meaning and the lesson of growth—all crucibles have these elements.  I would also say that there is nothing quite as empowering as emerging from the crucible.  Keep your head down and your spirits up.  Picture yourself having emerged from the crucible victorious and take one step at a time toward that goal. Be patient and determined—you’ll get there.

To those of you who have already come through your own crucibles, welcome to the club!  Now, find someone to share your experience with who needs a little encouragement.

Good luck on your way up!

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at

Follow Pepper on YouTube: A new inspirational video message is posted every Monday - Common Sense Wisdom: Thoughts to Live By. 

Top companies on
Expedia ManpowerGroup Utilitywise Prague Grafton Recruitment s.r.o. Amadeus Media Group Dorset Recruitment