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The Best Way to Success Is to Be Severely Tested

The Best Way to Success Is to Be Severely Tested

Want to know the best way to get to success in life? You must be severely tested.

What if I were to tell you that the essential skills of successful leaders are the same as the skills that allow a person to find the meaning of an adverse experience? Would you believe me?

In Crucibles of Leadership, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas argue that strong leaders are those who overcome adversity. In interviewing more than 40 top leaders in the world, they uncovered a surprising conclusion. They found that all of the leaders interviewed, both young and old, were able to point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that had transformed them.

Bennis and Thomas call these experiences crucibles. So, what is a crucible?

What Is a Crucible?

    A crucible is literally a container that can withstand extremely high temperatures. Think of a metal container in which metals are melted. This is the container you would use to fill a mold with liquid metal.

    A crucible can also be that of a severe trial, in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new. A metaphor for this is – a relationship was forged in the “crucible” of war.

    For our purposes here, a crucible is a transformative event involving a severe test or trial – where the crucibles are intense, often traumatic, and always unplanned.

    Crucible Experience

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      For the leaders interviewed by Bennis and Thomas, the crucible experience was even more than a trial or test, it was a point of deep self-reflection that forced a leader to question who they were and what mattered to them.

      They found leaders were transformed from the experience and came away with an altered sense of identity. These experiences required each leader to question their perceptions of reality. In turn, they emerged from their crucible experience stronger and with a sense of purpose. Bennis and Thomas concluded that they were all significantly changed in some fundamental way.

      The crucible stories discussed were similar to my own. As a child growing up in a destructive life and in the foster care system, I immediately related to these stories. Some crucible experiences illuminate a hidden and suppressed area of the soul. I found that some of my own personal stories were hidden deep within my own soul.

      I have previously discussed some of my experiences in my book Succeeding as a Foster Child, yet I have not previously thought of them as crucibles until now. My crucible experiences, at times, were among the harshest a person should experience. They took the form of roughly my entire early life as a child and into early adulthood. My parents brought forth the majority of these experiences.

      My father committed suicide when I was 18 years old. He seemed to have spent his life in and out of darkness. He was an alcoholic – yet, in the end – drugs, depression, and a rifle in his own hands took his life. My mother is still living; however, in a shell of the person she could have been. She is an alcoholic, yet her vice is drugs. Growing up with my mother was a dangerous experience. She was severely beaten by different men and would expose her children to nightmarish experiences. One such experience at the age of ten, found me walking through a drug-infested mobile home trying to avoid stepping on used needles just to go to the bathroom.

      Darkness Will Not Win

        Around the age of 12, I was placed into foster care – where surprisingly, my transformation started to begin. I was placed into a foster home in a small town in Kansas – Kensington, Kansas. [1]

        The people in this town shared with me the power of building relationships. I now understand how relationships provide purpose and meaning in my life. I came to believe that when people feel strong about something, most of the time they will succeed.

        I would do extremely well for a while in foster care, yet I could not continue moving forward as I would return to my biological parents. Essentially, I began to move back into their darkness. However, I would always find my way back to Kensington. Every time I found my way back to this small town, my consciousness would be raised to a higher level. One foster parent in particular (Robert Bearley) helped me raise my consciousness.

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        I found that every time I left my mother and father that I was able to understand my environment better. By better understanding my environment, I was then able to start to understand that I was in control of my own reality. However, it took a while and some additional crucible experiences for me to truly grasp this.

        Developing Future Leaders Through Crucible Experiences

        I specifically remember a couple key events during my teenage years that established the foundation for my life as a leader in today’s military. One such moment established the foundation for what would become a career in leadership and lifelong learning. Robert Bearley helped me establish a set of values. He demonstrated to me one of the same points described by Bennis and Thomas – that life is not about rewards or results, but it’s about what you do and how you go about achieving those results. Essentially, he showed me the importance of the process in achieving something and how great leaders care about the process just as much as the result.

        Moreover, at the age of 16, I remember picking up my mother from a hotel room, where she was staying with an unknown man. She was both drunk and high at the same time. I pulled her out of the hotel room and took her on a long road trip to my grandparent’s. I was living with my father at the time and I remember wanting to get back to the Kensington community. I was no longer in foster care, yet I wanted to live with my grandparents who lived near the community. They told me the only way I would be allowed to live with them is if I could bring my mother home. I remember the experience vividly, yet previous crucible experiences allowed me to carry out this task as if it was a normal occurrence.

        Looking back, I wonder if I could have done this without living the previous 16 years in hell. Imagine pulling a prostitute out of a hotel room, one who is both drunk and high. Now imagine that prostitute is your mother.

        The Best Way to Get There Is to Be Tested

        It took quite a few failures and horrible situations throughout my life, but each one of these experiences or crucibles created who I am today. These crucibles established a lifelong enjoyment for reading, writing, thinking, and the pursuit of knowledge. These experiences developed a specific mindset to live by. They created a maverick mindset and a no fear approach to questioning everything.

        I emerged from these crucibles knowing that nothing can break me. Each test or each crucible changed me fundamentally as a person. Where others, to include my younger brother, found despair, I found opportunity from each crucible.

        Essentials of Leadership

          Bennis and Thomas asked one key question in their research. Let’s take a look at the question and what they found to be the answer.[2]

          Question: So, what allowed these people to not only cope with these difficult situations but also learn from them?

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          Answer: We believe that great leaders possess four essential skills, and we were surprised to learn that these happen to be the same skills that allow a person to find meaning in what could be a debilitating experience.

          So, what are those essential skills of successful leaders and those that allow a person to find meaning from an adverse experience? Just don’t forget that they are the same.

          Four Essential Skills

          1. The ability to engage others in shared meaning. Think of my discussion of relationships in foster care. When we feel strongly enough about something, we increase our likelihood of success.
          2. A distinctive and compelling voice. Think of examples throughout history of people who used the power of words to bring about change. Here, I think of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., and even leaders from my time in foster care.
          3. Sense of integrity. Think of the discussion about establishing a strong set of values in foster care.
          4. Adaptive capacity. Bennis and Thomas inform us that this is by far the most critical skill of the four. They explain that this is applied creativity and is a magical ability to transcend adversity, with all its attendant stress – to emerge stronger than before.

          Learn to Be a Chameleon

            Bennis and Thomas explain that adaptive capacity is composed of a combination of two primary qualities.

            1. Ability to grasp context. This is our ability to see multiple perspectives of a situation and connect with people. For me, this was my ability to see past insults and the stigma associated with being a foster child.
            2. Hardiness. This is perseverance and toughness enabling people to emerge from a traumatic event without losing hope. For me personally, this was my ability to remain healthy despite living a difficult life. I do not drink, smoke, or do drugs because of what I witnessed. Yet, my younger brother took the opposite route and has developed similar health and addiction problems to that of my parents.

            Adaptive capacity allows a person to not just survive a horrible or traumatic event, but to learn from it, and to emerge stronger and more committed than ever before. Essentially, this is what turns the situation into a crucible or transformative event.

            Post-traumatic Growth (PTG)

              I do not disagree with anything provided in Crucibles of Leadership, but something is missing. The missing component is Post-traumatic Growth (PTG) and should be added as a skill within or after adaptive capacity. We can all persevere and become stronger (think hardiness), yet PTG better explains growth from the crucible experience.

              PTG is a positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning.[3] Furthermore, PTG is not about returning to the same life as before, but to become better after the life-changing event. Here, the life-changing event is the crucible. This contributes to an intimate process of personal change, providing a purpose that is deeply meaningful.

              One key point contrasting PTG from hardiness, perseverance, or resilience is that PTG refers to a change in a person that goes far beyond the ability to resist. Essentially, not to be damaged by the traumatic event. Moreover, there are certain characteristics of PTG. Let’s take a look at each and how they apply to my story.

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              Characteristics of PTG:

              • Greater appreciation of life. It would have been easy for me to give up and follow in my parent’s footsteps.
              • Changed sense of priorities. As a leader in the military, my experiences as a foster child established the importance of setting the right priorities in my life. If I have the wrong priorities, my soldiers and family will have the wrong priorities.
              • Warmer, more intimate relationships. I now have an unbelievably great relationship with two beautiful girls – my wife and young daughter.
              • Greater sense of personal strength. The crucibles of my life as a young child have provided me a powerful maverick mindset.
              • Recognition of new possibilities of paths for life and spiritual development. The small community I lived in during my time in foster care provided me an awareness of what could be possible. Spiritual development played a huge role during this time in my life and saved my life.

              Crucibles Create Strong Leaders

                My personal experience through each crucible has made a profound impact on my role as an organization-level leader in the U.S. Army. Bennis and Thomas explain that the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is our ability to find meaning from negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances. In my career field, failing to possess this mindset can literally get you killed – either by an enemy or by your own hand.

                The skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders. Leaders who recognize this will develop and lead organizations with a positive organizational climate.

                My crucible experiences developed a person who is perfect for the military. By this I mean, if I see a dangerous situation or if I notice someone is in danger, I will not hesitate to leap into action. I will not hesitate to help someone in physical and life-threatening danger.

                Each crucible experience changed me for the better. After each crucible, I did not return to the same life as before, but became better after the life-changing event – even if I did not realize it at the time.

                Finally, let me share with you one last personal example. If you ask my wife, I love cloudy weather and enjoy the rain. One of my crucible experiences took place during a storm. Every time it rains I remind myself that nothing can kill me – not my parents and not the storm. The rain is my reminder that I will never fear a person or the storm again.

                Reference

                [1] Dr. Jamie Schwandt: What the world can learn from this small Kansas town
                [2] Bennis & Thomas: Crucibles of Leadership
                [3] Wiki:Posttraumatic Growth

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                Dr. Jamie Schwandt

                Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt & Red Team Critical Thinker

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                Last Updated on March 21, 2019

                11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

                11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

                Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

                You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

                But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

                To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

                It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

                “What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

                The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

                In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

                Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

                1. Start Small

                The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

                Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

                Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

                Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

                Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

                Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

                It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

                Do less today to do more in a year.

                2. Stay Small

                There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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                But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

                If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

                When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

                I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

                Why?

                Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

                The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

                Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

                3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

                No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

                There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

                What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

                Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

                This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

                This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

                4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

                When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

                There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

                Peter Drucker said,

                “What you track is what you do.”

                So track it to do it — it really helps.

                But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

                5. Measure Once, Do Twice

                Peter Drucker also said,

                “What you measure is what you improve.”

                So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

                For reading, it’s 20 pages.
                For writing, it’s 500 words.
                For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
                For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

                Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

                6. All Days Make a Difference

                Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

                Will two? They won’t.

                Will three? They won’t.

                Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

                What happened? Which one made you fit?

                The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

                No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

                7. They Are Never Fully Automated

                Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

                But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

                What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

                It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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                The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

                It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

                It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

                8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

                Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

                Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

                When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

                The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

                Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

                9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

                The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

                Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

                You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

                But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

                So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

                If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

                This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

                The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

                Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

                10. Punish Yourself

                Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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                I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

                It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

                You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

                No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

                The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

                But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

                11. Reward Yourself

                When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

                Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

                The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

                After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

                If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

                Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

                If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

                In the End, It Matters

                What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

                When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

                And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

                “Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

                Keep going.

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                More Resources to Help You Build Habits

                Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

                Reference

                [1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
                [2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
                [3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
                [4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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