Crucibles and challenges: Tough times can be your career catalyst

Our careers are marked with crucibles and challenges. They stretch us. They demand the best of us. We remember them fondly, even if they were an ordinary at the time.

Challenges can be periods of intense stress, testing our abilities. Crucibles are that but more. The term traces back to the vessels in which the alchemists turned base metals into gold. It was revived as a management metaphor by Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas after research for their book Geeks and Geezers discovered each leader they interviewed – young or old – had received at least one intense, transformational experience. Those ranged from being mentored to mastering a martial art, climbing a mountain, spending a year in a foreign country or leading others at a tender age in wartime.

“People who undergo a crucible and grow through the experience all share something vital: They don’t become stuck. No matter how much they struggle, no matter how much they may grieve, and no matter how much they may chafe at finding themselves in situations they cannot immediately control, they are not paralyzed by difficult situations. Where others see chaos and confusion, they see opportunities to grow and learn,” Mr. Thomas wrote in a later book, Crucibles of Challenge.

Consultant Wally Bock notes on his blog that “usually a crucible is imposed from outside. It might be an emergency. It might be an assignment or a position where, at first, you don’t know how you will get the job done.”

I twice found myself replacing a boss on sudden notice. The first time was just months into my career and I had no idea how to get the job done. The second time I was better prepared but equally flummoxed by the challenge that would become a crucible.

Early in his career, legendary executive Jack Welch found himself responsible for a factory that blew up. “I was a nervous wreck. My confidence was shaken almost as much as the building I had destroyed,” he recounted in his autobiography Jack: Straight from the Gut. A prime lesson was that his boss offered understanding, rather than pummeling him. “When people make mistakes, the last thing they need is discipline. It’s time for encouragement and confidence building. The job is to restore self-confidence. I think ‘piling on’ when someone is down is one of the worst things any of us can do,” he wrote.

Crucibles can occur in early family experiences. Former IBM chief executive Ginni Rometty opens her recent memoir Good Power with the day her family was preparing to move to a new home and her father announced he wasn’t coming with them, leaving for life with a new woman. The family would struggle for many years but her mother returned to night school and a better job, and the children all suffered from their subsequent careers. “No matter how desperate a situation gets, we each have within us the power to create opportunities for ourselves as well as others,” she says.

Years later, after skillfully overseeing IBM’s takeover of PwC’s consulting arm, she found the loss of revenue afterward far greater than anticipated and when asked at a dinner with friends “how’s the big job going?” burst into tears, admitting that she had been told if she didn’t turn it around she would have been fired. Among the many later lessons was that she couldn’t fix it by herself: Asking others for help was a sign of strength, not weakness.

Like Ms. Rometty, leadership development consultant Soren Kaplan had to take an unusual amount of familial responsibility at an early age, in his case because his mother was spiraling into mental illness and his father rarely presented. He argues the key to success is having a high XQ – experiential intelligence, which he defines as “the combination of mindsets, abilities and know-how gained from your unique life experience that empowers you to achieve your goals.”

The experiences need not be big, traumatic ones, but the little things that add up over time to shape our thinking and behavior. And it’s important to recognize that intelligence in others as well as yourself, perhaps hiring someone with impressive street smarts over someone with a pedigree education.

In his book Experiential Intelligence, he says developing your XQ starts looking backwards. Determine what experiences had the greatest impact on you, what beliefs arose from those situations, and what knowledge and personal abilities were developed as a result. A single experience can lead to multiple abilities and mindsets so this exercise may best be done systematically, writing out your answers on a template with four categories – experiences, mindsets, abilities and know-how – rather than just loosely pondering on a walk in the woods. Of the categories, he stresses mindset changes are probably the most powerful in driving significant changes and breakthroughs in your life.

Mr. Bock compares calm seas to crucibles and crises. When the seas calm after a crisis, reflect and learn: “Identify the new skills you’ve mastered and how you might use them. Identify what you learned about how you learned and how you can use that going forward.”


  • In a hybrid workplace, it’s important to encourage your managers to hold one meaningful conversation of 15 to 30 minutes per week with each employee. Jim Harter, chief scientist of Gallup’s workplace management and well-being practice, says research found managers learn the skill quickly and it led to higher employee engagement on their teams and better retention.
  • Executive coach Scott Eblin recommends asking these two questions when preparing for performance management conversations with an employee: “How do I want them to feel” and “what do I want them to do?”
  • Negotiators who provide explanations for their proposals are more likely to reach agreements than those who do not offer any justification, advises Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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