Leadership Caffeine™-Of Crucibles and Leadership Character

image of a coffee cup“…the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, questions their assumptions, hone their judgment.”  -Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas in Crucibles of Leadership (subscription may be required).

Two job candidates walk into a coffee shop. One has a spotless record of achievement and accomplishments and a career that runs upward like a steep staircase from early career until now. His life reads like a storybook we can all smile about and wish ourselves to be so fortunate. This is a solid professional.

The other candidate’s record is good, however, there are several points in time when things went wrong. A start-up failure is the first warning flag. A few years of seeming under-employment after the start-up raises another flag. However, even under-employed, there’s visible growth into a leadership role. And then there’s a gap in the work history of 18 months followed by more underemployment. Still, there’s a quick quick progression to a level of significant responsibility. It turns out that this time spent outside the workforce was time she spent caring for a loved one struggling with a terminal disease.

The first candidate is compelling, but the second candidate is likely my choice. And it’s not because I have a soft spot for hiring people who have encountered hardship during their lives. It’s because I want to field the absolute best talent to help our people grow and our organization survive and succeed. The individual who has fought through hardship and displayed signs of survival and success brings a level of personal and leadership depth far beyond that of our more traditional and successful candidate.

I know that at some point we’ll face a crisis we didn’t see coming…something that threatens our business and even our continued existence. This is beyond the quarterly sales shortfall or the delayed product launch date. It’s a crucible moment in the life of a business and we either rethink and change or we risk becoming corporate road kill. 

It’s at this point in time…the seemingly dark moments, that I want leaders who understand what it takes to walk into the fire and emerge out the other side changed and stronger.  It’s their leadership and resolve that will see us through the dark hours towards survival and strengthening.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Your struggles and even your failures are important elements of who you are as a leader.  A track-record of chronic failures is different than having encountered and survived a profound setback. It’s the setbacks, the unexpected crises and your approach to surviving and persevering through these crucible moments that forge your character as a leader. Learn, live and lead. And as a hiring manager responsible for building your team’s and your organization’s leadership future, open your eyes to people who understand what it means to struggle and then win.

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By | 2016-10-22T17:11:21+00:00 June 17th, 2013|Leadership, Leadership Caffeine|6 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Andrew Meyer June 17, 2013 at 10:26 am - Reply


    I think there’s another element which should also be explored. Leadership offers one route to advancement, skills offer another.

    Leadership, and the status that come along with it, are one obvious route. The difficulty is that organizations tend to be pyramid shaped. Every step up the ladder reduces the number of opportunities by seven-to-ten and increases the number of qualified people competing for those increases by seven-to-ten.

    Following the skill route is a little different. Desired skills evolve. It used to be enterprise applications that were hot, then it became web applications, then it evolved to mobile applications, quickly followed by cloud and SaaS. With each new wave of opportunities, the previous wave becomes starved for people. I.e. fewer people are doing enterprise applications, because the hot area is cloud or mobile. Likewise, Web applications, which need to be retrofitted and integrated with enterprise applications are starving for people. These are $100/hour or $200K per year jobs.

    My point isn’t that one shouldn’t look up, but if others are looking up, don’t forget the great opportunities that begging for people, if you’ll just look down or laterally.


    • Art Petty June 17, 2013 at 7:12 pm - Reply

      Andy, always a good day to see a comment from you! Great topic for another post. -Art

  2. David Franzetta June 17, 2013 at 7:00 pm - Reply

    What you say makes a lot of sense, and I agree with the notion that personal “crucibles” provide spectacular opportunities for leadership development and personal growth. Of course, this isn’t a new idea–Robert J. Thomas’ book Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader, 2008, Harvard Business Press made the same argument in compelling fashion.
    Keep up the terrific stream of leadership advice.

    • Art Petty June 17, 2013 at 7:11 pm - Reply

      Thanks for stopping by and for the resource suggestion, David. As noted in my post (opening quote), both Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas collaborated on the original “Crucibles of Leadership.” It served as my prompter. -Art

  3. Jacque Vilet June 18, 2013 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    In a New York Times interview with Mark B. Templeton, President and CEO of Citrix, he talks about what he looks for in job candidates.

    I look for scars. You can call it wisdom, you can call it experience, or the things that went wrong in your life. That’s where I think knowledge turns into wisdom. A lot of people will have facts and information. I’m looking for wisdom, and wisdom ends up being a measure of scars, and things that went wrong and what you did about them and how they shaped you as a person and your beliefs.”

    From the following article: http://www.tlnt.com/2013/06/11/5-great-things-you-can-learn-by-working-for-bad-bosses/

  4. How Hardship Creates Leaders September 7, 2013 at 9:17 am - Reply

    […] blogger Art Petty told a story about two job candidates. One had a “spotless record of achievement.” The other’s career […]

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