Leadership Crucible

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By Stephane Leblanc, Founder and CEO, International Centre for Conscious Leadership

For as long as I remember, I have wanted to be a great leader and I have wondered how does a great leader become one. How can I become one. I figured it was about learning from other great leaders. Little did i know about what it truly took to become a great leader.

Some people believe great leaders are born and others believe great leaders are formed.  

As I have been on my own leadership journey for more than 30 years now, I strongly believe a leader cannot be called a leader until one has been tested.  I believe great leaders are formed.  One can be born with some characteristics that will help him or her become a great leaders but this is not enough.  Just as an athlete, talent alone only allows you to walk on the practice ground, it does not make you a champion.

I also believe that the truly great leaders became great because their overcame significant challenges. Challenges so tough that most people would have given up and yet, through thick and thin, they persevered. Challenge that we can refer to as their leadership crucible.

According to the research of Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas, one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances. Put another way, the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders. A crucible is, by definition, a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of identity.

Leadership crucibles are defining moments in a leader's journey.  Moments that allow the manager to become a true leader through a transformation process that then allows the leader to transform her organization, her community or her country.

A great example of this is Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in prison on Robben Island in South Africa. He went in as a revolutionary and came out as wise man and a statesman who made peace in South Africa and stopped the Apartheid regime.

I have had a few leadership crucibles in my career that helped me define who I was as a leader.

One of the most notable one was when I was first promoted to a vice president position.  I was a leading a large business unit that was building the flagship product of the company.  When I joined we were losing a lot of money, delivering products that did not meet the quality expectations of the clients and we were significantly late. 

At about the same time, as I came into this position, a new President of our group was appointed.  He came to see me and asked how long it would take to turn around the business unit. I intuitively said two years.  He was not happy and I explained that the cycle time to design, build and deliver our products was eighteen months. He expressed to me his trust.

A few months later, one of our products to be delivered to a high profile client who was also a friend of our Chairman was significantly late.  The group President asked me to commit a firm date to deliver the product so he could commit it to the Chairman's friend.

A few weeks later, we discovered a quality issue with the product.  It was a minor quality issue but as the client was very focused on very quality in his own business, we assumed he was also in the products he bought, especially since this product was worth several tens of millions $. So it did not take me long to decide to push the delivery by three weeks to fix the product so it would meet the high quality standards of the client.

As soon as I communicated this news to my President who reported to the group President, his face went white.  He told me that the group President would never accept this.  I stuck to my principle and values and told him we had no choice, that quality was more important than schedule.

Soon after, when I told the group President, he stopped talking to me for several weeks. A few weeks later, I was told by our human resources VP that I would lose a significant portion of my bonus for missing my commitment.  It seemed so unfair to me that I would be penalized like this for honouring our company value of quality first. The HR VP told me the group President wanted to fire me but they convinced otherwise.

This challenging situation lasted a few weeks until I actually delivered the product to the customer.  At which time, I invited our group President to meet the client.  After inspecting the product, the client told me and the group president that the product was perfect and met all his quality standards. This was a good moment or me.

After that, the relationship between our group President and I transformed as he became the biggest supporter of our transformation.  He had seen I was a man of integrity with the courage to do what was right.

This crucible was quite transformational for me as I chose to lead with my values no matter what and I have been doing so ever since.

I have gone through many other leadership crucibles since then and I am sure I will go through some more as we always go through major challenges so we can transform and become the leader we need to be for our future mission.

Have you gone through you own leadership crucibles?