Leadership development: Crucibles

April 15, 2015 by Wally Bock

Think about the most powerful learning experiences of your life. What were they like? Were they gentle, easy experiences? Or did they demand that you use every fiber of your strength and every bit of your intellect to master the situation? We call those experiences “crucibles” for a reason.

Leadership development in the crucible

The most powerful leadership development experiences happen in crucibles. In his excellent book, Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader, Robert Thomas defines a crucible as

“a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of identity.”

That sounds good, but there is a catch,

Crucibles can produce bad outcomes

Because crucibles are strenuous tests, they don’t always turn out well. Some developing leaders emerge from a crucible with their career or psyche in tatters. Others learn important lessons, but not for years or decades. Some emerge stronger and ready for the next challenge.

If your leadership development program includes crucibles or developmental assignments, or what Proctor and Gamble calls “accelerator experiences” then you need to devote some resources to the aftermath.

Getting the most from crucible experiences

You can grow leaders faster and better by helping them learn from experience, but not all the crucible experiences will yield positive outcomes right away. There are two sets of lessons to be learned. One set is about the content of the crucible experience and implications for leadership. The other set is about how to learn and make sense of experience.

To get the most from those crucibles, you need to be prepared to help participants learn and develop, no matter how the crucible events played out.


The thinking that resulted in this post started when I read Julie Winkle Giulioni’s post, “The risky business of leadership development.”

Wally Bock is a coach, a writer and President of Three Star Leadership.

Posted in Leadership Development

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