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Self Talk

The Crucible

by Dr. John C. Maxwell

Growing up, future United States President Harry Truman never thought of himself as a leader—nor did anyone else. With “eyeglasses thick as the bottom of a Coke bottle,” historian David McCullough writes that Truman couldn’t try out for school sports and mostly stayed home, working the farm, reading, or playing the piano.

But the course of his life changed forever when, as a young man, he signed up for the Army to fight in World War I. He was shipped off to France as the head of an artillery battery, and for the first time in his life he was forced to lead men through moments of mortal danger. His initial test came on a rainy night in the mountains. The Germans had dropped an artillery barrage close by, and his troops panicked and broke ranks. In the frenzy, Truman’s horse fell over on him, and he was nearly crushed. McCullough writes: “Out from under (the horse), seeing the others running, he just stood there, locked in place. He called them back, screaming as loudly as he could…shaming his men back to do what they were supposed to do.” The men regrouped, got through the night, and many of them returned home safely. Throughout the rest of their lives, those men were loyal to Harry Truman, their leader, who refused to back down in the face of his own fear.

According to McCullough, Truman discovered two vitally important things about himself that night. First, that he had plain physical courage; and second, that he was good at leading people. He learned that if the leader shows courage, it’s contagious.

In his conclusion on Truman’s life, McCullough writes: “And war was the crucible.”

A crucible is an opportunity, test, or emergency that summons the very best from a person and reveals their finest inner qualities. Once a potential leader experiences a crucible, they are transformed forever. The crucible is a challenge or crisis that proves the leadership capacity lying within a person and becomes a defining moment in their leadership journey.

Qualities of the Crucible

  1. They Happen To Every Emerging Leader.

    Leadership has to be tested and proven; and the only way this happens is through the crucible. First of all, the crucible is a necessary test for leaders to find courage. Secondly, the crucible shows the leader’s followers whether or not they can place their trust in the leader. Under heavy artillery fire, it was necessary for Harry Truman to find out he had enough courage to hold his ground. While important for him, the crucible was equally important for the soldiers in his platoon, because, after that moment, they knew they could respect him as their leader.

  2. They Reveal The Hidden Potential Inside a Person.

    Crucibles are like tea in hot water. They bring out the true colors inside. Crucibles don’t make the man or woman; they simply reveal the character within. What a person does in the crucible will make or break their future as a leader. The crucible will either show their hidden potential or their hidden problems. Either way, the crucible never leaves us the same.

  3. They Bring Great Difficulties and Stress.

    Crucibles are often accompanied by suffering, at least temporarily. For some leaders the crucible experience has been imprisonment, war, or sickness. For others, it was being overlooked for a promotion, losing a client, or being laid off.

    Maturity and experience with crucibles will not lessen the difficulty, but they will lessen the stress. When we have experience, we understand what is happening, and we can take confidence in having persevered in the past.

  4. They Purify Motives and Shape Ambitions.

    Crucibles are cleansing and purifying because they help a leader sort through priorities. Ambitions are brought to light, as the crucible helps leaders get past the trivial and the mundane. J. R. Morgan said it best, “A man always has two reasons for doing anything—a good reason and the real reason.” The crucible has a way of pressing out the real reason.

  5. They Teach Lessons That Help Leaders Transcend Themselves.

    Crucibles push us to go places we normally wouldn’t venture. I vividly remember a conversation with my friend, Dr. John Bright Cage, a heart surgeon. In his concern for my fitness, he scolded me for not leading a healthy life. I recall arguing with him over and over that my health was fine while ignoring his warnings about being overweight. I kept arguing, denying, and justifying until the day I finally had a heart attack. Talk about a crucible experience! It had a wonderful way of awakening me to examine my lifestyle.

  6. They Either Become an Obstacle or an Opportunity to Fulfill One’s Purpose.

    Crucibles make us or break us. They help us or hurt us. They’re an asset or a liability. Crucibles almost always leave a memory we look back on as a defining moment. They propel us on a trajectory, either good or bad, towards our leadership destination. Many of us realize our “life purpose” through the crucible experience.

    Winston Churchill, the great British leader said: “There comes a special moment in everyone’s life, a moment for which that person was born. That special opportunity, when he seizes it, will fulfill his mission—a mission for which he is uniquely qualified. In that moment he finds greatness. It is his finest hour.” Winston Churchill was exactly right; and that moment almost always comes through the crucible.

"This article is used by permission from Dr. John C. Maxwell's free monthly e-newsletter 'Leadership Wired' available at www.maximumimpact.com. "

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