Great leaders: Are personal crucibles a prerequisite?

I’ve been reading the book Strengths Finder 2.0, by Tom Rath.  Like one of my favorite business books, First, Break all the Rules  by Curt Coffman and Markus Buckingham, Strengths Finders 2.0 relies on data gathered from extensive Gallup surveys to help the reader discover and understand their five (out of 34 possible) top strengths.  The author’s premise is that we gain more by concentrating on our strengths than we do trying to improve our weaknesses.

In the end, I did not find my five identified strengths terribly enlightening. The premise that we should spend more time working on maximizing our strengths – both by strengthening them and by maximizing how often we use them – and less time improving our weaknesses, however, resonated with a couple other things I have been thinking about recently:

  1. Performance evaluations: I think we spend too much time pointing out weaknesses and developing improvement action plans when we do annual employee evaluations. I would like to see people figuring out what went really well, why, and how we can set things up to realize similar successes in the future. That is, performance evaluation discussions should dominantly be about doing more of what we do best and not about trying to be a little bit better at what we do poorly.  But then I get this nagging feeling that weaknesses are important to. Weaknesses make us blind to entire pathways of opportunity. Weakness make us fail to connect to people who think drastically different than we do.  If all we did was capitalize on our strengths, we would reach a certain level of success quickly, but to transcend to the next level, I think, requires an understanding and embracing of our weaknesses.
  2. Great leaders:  All the great leaders in  Bill George’s book, True North, went through at least one particularly difficult and personally challenging life-changing event on their path to becoming great leaders.  George’s belief is that it is through life’s experiences that we discover our true north, our purpose and our reason for leading.  Author Rajeev Peshawaria takes a similar approach in another book I enjoyed, Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders. While reading these books, I  began to ponder: do all leaders need what George calls a “crucible” to be successful? If you do not have a life-changing event of tragic proportions, does that mean you cannot be a great leader? What exactly is the role of the crucible? Is there something else going on besides finding a passion to lead for a particular purpose?

I did not initially see how these two topics relate, although I have now come to think of the purpose of the crucible as the opening up and revealing a part of yourself that was previously unknown. George and Peshawaria’s main point is that crucibles give leaders a deep, personal drive that motivates themselves and others.  To this, I agree.  Yet, I think there is something more.   What crucibles also do is sort of complete the package. Crucibles make potential leaders more rounded and complete in part by exposing their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  In revealing a sense of purpose, crucibles peel back the onion and uncover hidden parts of people’s psyches.  What used to be personal blindspots become irresistible areas of development and opportunity.   They often reveal a side of us we never knew we had – perhaps even a side we considered not only a weakness, but irrelevant.

The best leaders know not only their strengths, but also their weaknesses. They organize their primary roles to take best advantage of their strengths while partnering with others in their areas of weakness.  They know that their weaknesses represent potential blindspots that, if ignored, hamper their ability to lead.  They also know to not only work with, but to value people that are strong where they themselves, are weak.

George’s crucibles can help bring this clear sense of being incomplete, of seeing not only the value of our strengths, but the value of our weaknesses, as well.  This awareness helps us develop those weaknesses and to find others around us to support our weaknesses while fostering a strong drive to develop and accomplish something meaningful.

Truly understanding ourselves is key to recognizing what our true strengths are. It helps us realize in what areas of work we are likely to excel. Truly understanding ourselves is also key to understanding our weaknesses and what aspects of our work we need to pay particular attention to and allow others to help us with.  It helps us find opportunities we would otherwise be blind to.  Understanding our strengths, supporting our weaknesses: this is beginning to sound like my paragraph on performance evaluations, yet it derived from studying a group of great leaders and their struggles.

Which  brings us back to Strengths Finder 2.0. Yes, in terms of performance output per energy spent,  maximizing our strengths is generally going to be more rewarding  than improving our weaknesses.  But that is not the whole story. It is the knowledge of our weaknesses, our real ownership of them, that allows an additional level of growth that takes us from being good leaders to potentially great leaders.  Crucibles not only directly confront us with our weaknesses, they often expose a part of ourselves that we didn’t know we had.  Sometimes this part of ourselves ends up being a weakness that perhaps is not quite as weak as we thought.  We begin to appreciate the value of our weaknesses. That is, we are forced to re-classify what we may have previously cast off as not very important or useful, as something not only useful, but valuable.  The very act of discovery both increases our own abilities in our areas of weakness and helps us to appreciate and value others whose strengths are our weaknesses.  People that we might otherwise have not valued, we begin to see as key contributors to our mission. We begin to value, rather than shun, people who think differently from us.  I believe these results are what transform George’s (and our own) generally good leaders into great leaders.

So, do you need a crucible to be a great leader? Perhaps not, but you do need to understand who you are, why you are, what you do well, and what values those different from you bring.  A crucible is just a convenient, if sometimes painful, way to get that.

Fifteen years ago, Scot took a personality test and was most shocked not by his resulting personality type, but at one particular type that he clearly was not.  He was amazed there really were people – both functional and successful – that were really this type. Today, he finds  exploring that part of his own personality and working with others of that type, very rewarding and a key to working his way to being at least a good leader.

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One Response to Great leaders: Are personal crucibles a prerequisite?

  1. Scot says:

    I don’t know if I should comment on my own post, or edit the entry, but here goes anyway. One point that came up in conversation is that we all probably do have trying times in our lives that teach us something about ourselves that we didn’t know before and that drive us in different ways and shape us in the future. I believe these events can be called crucibles even if they aren’t as dramatic story fodder as the examples in the books I mention.


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