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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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                Last Updated on April 8, 2020

                How to Calm Down When You’re Stressed and Anxious

                How to Calm Down When You’re Stressed and Anxious

                Overwhelmed with work, family responsibilities, financial challenges and health issues are common culprits which catalyze stress and anxiety symptoms that show up differently in each and every one of us.

                Whilst many of us are becoming much better at identifying what can trigger us to feel these, we’re not always that great at recognizing our individual thresholds; we don’t know exactly how to calm down when the mental, emotional storms erupt.

                We can almost see you eye-rolling upon hearing commonly recommended stress antidotes such as taking a bath, lighting candles or going for a walk. Let’s face it. These simply aren’t practical things you can do when you’re on a red-eye flight at 5:30am to run a full day of training interstate and then fly back the same evening not to mention juggling a young family.

                You want to know your triggers, predict the impact of them and have your own suite of tools up your sleeve to calm down that impact for the long-term.

                Doing a little ground work to gain a strong self-awareness of your likely reactions puts you smack bang in the pilot seat to develop a robust mental and emotional toolkit that will work wonders for you.

                A few simple but well-practiced techniques may be all you need to simmer down the cyclonic intensity of emotions, and disparaging thoughts pecking away at your self-esteem and confidence. However, it’s important you do this self-reflective groundwork first to gain maximum impact for long-term effect.

                1. Strengthen Familiarity with What Triggers You

                When you have arguments with your loved one, do you stop and look to see if there are certain things you fight about? Are there certain behaviors they display that drive you bananas?

                Take your focus off them and ask yourself: “What is my usual response?”

                Perhaps you feel the anger welling up inside your chest and you then spurt out that you’ve told him or her ten times before to not leave their underwear lying across the bedroom floor.

                Think a little deeper. Ask yourself what values, standards and expectations you have that are not being met here. You’ll likely be attached to certain ways you believe things should play out. Are there assumptions and expectations as to how you believe people should conduct themselves and principles about how you feel you should be treated?

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                Having a strong attachment to these for yourself is one thing. Expecting others to have the same attachment is often what can make the hot water start simmering.

                It is often when people behave in ways inconsistent with our belief systems and events unfold in discord with what we expect and are prepared for that we feel the most stress and anxiety.

                Make a list of the common circumstances in different areas of your life that cause you to become anxious and stressed. Against each of these, describe your stress response:

                What happens? What do you feel?

                Now think about the values, principles and expectations you have attached to these. You’ll see you have a few options:

                • Change my values and expectations
                • Try to change other’s values and expectations
                • Recognize and be in allowance of others having different values, standards and expectations

                Reviewing how you react when you’re stressed and anxious, and identifying which of these three options above is going to best serve you, can greatly increase your ability to feel and be in control of calming your reaction.

                You move closer to being able to choose how you want to respond as opposed to feeling helpless and the world is spiralling out of control.

                2. Have Coping Statements on Hand

                When you have a washing machine of chaotic thoughts churning in your mind, trying to implant thoughts that are the complete opposite of what you’re thinking and feeling can be pretty hard.

                Not being able to do it can also add another layer of us feeling disappointment in ourselves. We feel we’re failing.

                Having coping statements that you can literally latch on to to help you calm down in those stressful and anxious moments, can be particularly helpful.

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                Look at creating palm cards and just have three to five of these you can have in your pocket or in your purse. Here are 6 examples:

                • Even though I am feeling this right now, I am going to be alright
                • What I am feeling right now is uncomfortable. I won’t feel this way forever. Soon the intensity of what I am feeling will pass.
                • I’ve survived these feelings before. I can do it again.
                • I feel this way because of my past experiences but right now, I am actually safe.
                • It’s ok for me to feel this way. My body and brain are trying to protect me but I am actually safe right now.
                • Ah, here you are again, anxiety. Thanks for showing up to protect me, but I don’t need you right now.

                Choose words and dialogue that feel true and accurate for you. Read the statements out to yourself and test how fitting they are for you. What feels more assuring, calming and right for you?

                Make these statements your own. The aim is of these statements is to de-escalate the intensity of what you feel when you’re anxious and stressed.

                Remember, you want to refrain from having blunt statements which feel or sound like they’re self-reprimanding because they won’t be pacifying in a positive way.

                If you are unsure as to how to come up with statements that fit for you, look to work with a psychologist or licensed therapist to give you a strong start.

                3. Identify and Develop Physical Anchors

                You actually have within you resources to provide some of the most effective ways to calm yourself down in heightened moments you feel stressed and anxious. Renowned clinical psychologist Dr. Peter Levine and expert in treating stress and trauma, teaches us how techniques which do this, such as Somatic Experiencing®[1] can significantly help us calm down.

                By learning to be fully present and applying touch to certain areas of your body (e.g. forehead and heart space), you increase your capacity to self-regulate. You also learn how to attend to and release your unique symptoms that your body has been containing in a way you have not been able to before.

                Here’s one technique example:

                1. Get in a comfortable position
                2. Have your eyes open or closed, whatever feels most comfortable for you
                3. Now place one hand on your forehead, palm side flat against the skin
                4. Place the other hand, palm down across your heart space above your sternum… the flat of your chest area.
                5. Gently turn your attention to what you feel physically in the area between your two hands. Observe and just take notice of what you physically feel. Is your chest pounding? How strong are its beat and the rhythm? Do you notice any other sensations anywhere else between your two hands?
                6. Don’t try to push or resist what you’re feeling. Try to just sit with it and remain this way with your hands in place until you feel a shift, a physical one. It might take a little longer, so try to be patient.

                You might feel a change in energy flow, a change in temperature or different, less intense sensations. Just keep your hands in place until you feel some kind of shift, even if gradual.

                It might take you even 5 to 10 minutes but, riding this wave will help you to process what discomfort your body is containing. It will greatly help to release it so you gradually become calmer.

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                Purely cognitive exercises can be tough at the outset. Learning somatic experience techniques is particularly helpful because you’re engaging in exercises where you physically can feel the difference. Feeling the changes helps you increase confidence you can control and reduce the discomfort you’re feeling. You’ll be motivated to keep practicing and improving this skill you can take anywhere, anytime.

                4. Move and Get Physical

                If you’re not one to exercise, you’re robbing yourself of some very easy ways which help you calm down and reduce stress and anxiety responses. Many neuro chemical changes take place when you engage in exercise.

                At certain levels of physical exertion, your brain’s pituitary gland releases neurotransmitter endorphins. When they bind with certain opiate receptors in your brain, signals are transmuted throughout your nervous system to reduce feelings of pain and trigger feelings of euphoria. You might have heard the term ‘runner’s high’.

                For the last 20 years, University of Missouri-Columbia’s Professor Richard Cox has conducted research showing that high intensity interval training (HIIT) is more effective at reducing anxiety and stress levels than other forms of aerobic exercise.[2] However, if you would rather slay dragons than turn up an F45 class, it’s essential you still find something that will physically shift you and alter your current mental and emotional state of mind, even just a fraction to start with. It’s 100% ok if this is not your cup of tea.

                So in a day full of back of back-to-back meetings, what can you do?

                If you’re sitting, stand. Change your posture and open your body up. Have a suite of discrete stretches you can do regularly as you deepen and engage in diaphragmatic breathing.

                If you’re looking down at your desk at work and feeling increasingly stressed, look up and change what you’re looking at. Give yourself more than a few moments to decompress.

                The main thing is to change your disposition from the one you’re in when you are experiencing anxiety and stress symptoms. You’re shaking it up to calm it down.

                5. Transform Your Unhelpful Inner Dialogue and Its Energy

                Learning cognitive restructuring techniques can truly work wonders in helping you recognize and re-frame unhelpful dialogue and negative critical thinking patterns. This involves a little preparation being transparent with yourself about what exaggerated perspectives you might ascribe to what’s happening when you’re feeling stressed and anxious.

                When you open your email inbox and see a flood of requests which require more time and energy you have for that day, dread starts to settle in and the following comes to mind: “This is impossible. How can they expect me to be able to do all this? It’s completely unreasonable!”

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                Instantly, many other thoughts that reinforce this line of thinking as well as the emotional energy of your first conscious thought start unravelling. A 4-step process you can engage to calm the eruption is:

                1. Catch and notice that first thought you had. What was it? What did you think and/or say to yourself?
                2. Recognize that what you’re feeling and be in allowance of the initial intensity of whatever those emotions are.
                3. Breath deliberately a little more deeply and slowly for a few seconds.
                4. State to yourself: “Right now (in this moment) I’m feeling overwhelmed by this, however maybe I can look at what I can make good progress and headway with as a start from here on.”

                Notice the language in step 4 is tentative, supportive, soft and not resistant nor defiant of what your original thought was. You accept your original thought, but gradually you become stronger at pivoting it.[3] You’re expanding your growth mindset language.

                It’s definitely worth working with a coach or trained therapist to learn how to tailor re-framing statements which can truly help you calm down.

                Final Thoughts

                We know, in our minds what we should do. When we’re in the thick of experiencing mental and emotional turmoil, it’s actually harder to implement what we know. In those moments, you’re unlikely to have capacity to think about what you need to do, let alone do it effectively to help you feel calmer.

                The key is to practice so that when the storm is brewing, your toolkit and supplies are in easy access. You already know your safety drill well.

                Knowing you have strategies and prepared processes up your sleeves helps you not only become better at calming yourself in amongst currently stressful situations. You have more confidence now to face more anxiety-provoking stressors because you have developed the resources to handle it.

                How you invest time and energy into getting to know your triggers and thresholds will influence how effective these strategies will work for you. We’re not denying relaxing baths or regular massages are helpful, however these band-aid-like solutions don’t really confront the root causes.

                If you truly want to turn your experience of your stress and anxiety symptoms around, dig deeper, do the groundwork and that which rattled your cage will quickly become a thing of the past.

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                Featured photo credit: Brooke Cagle via unsplash.com

                Reference

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