“Be continuously defeated by ever larger things.”
–Ranier Maria Rilke, Poet
When success comes easy and each success flows one after the other, leaders don’t feel the need to learn or develop. We are lulled into autopilot, into a fixed mindset. And in our rapidly changing, complex world, a fixed mindset is a death sentence.
From this perspective, we recognize adversity as a gift, especially when the stakes are high. Failure wakes you up! You have a choice: You can continue to conform to the pattern that brought you here—or—you can be transformed. You can shift your mindset. You can learn and grow. You can step across the threshold and emerge a stronger, better match for your challenges.
Two insights crystallize:
1. Leader development is a cycle of struggle and transformation (threshold experiences);
2. Each and every leader is custom-created and, therefore, has distinctive assets to apply to the cycle.
What are your unique assets as a leader?
One incredibly effective way to answer this question is to study the challenges you have overcome in your life—your past cycles of struggle and transformation. These threshold experiences—or “crucibles” as Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas (2002) have named them—are valuable in hindsight because here your unique assets as a leader are most visible. In the threshold, your authentic gifts are exposed. Shine light retrospectively on those stories and suddenly we can see them and name them.
Recall a time in your life when you experienced a cycle of struggle and transformation. First, tell the story with enough rich detail so that someone listening can visualize it. Second, reflect on the following questions, preferably with a small group because self-awareness is a team sport.
1. What unique strengths do you see in this story?
2. What part of the story is a glimpse of who you really are, your authentic, best self?
3. What about you was being born in that experience?
Now, Take Action!
Seeing and naming your unique assets is necessary, but not sufficient. We must learn how to bring them forth. Bennis and Thomas write, “The skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.”
And I think what they mean is that the skills required for you to conquer your past adversity are the same ones that can make you a more effective leader now and in the future. In other words, get clear on your assets—your authentic gifts as a leader—and then more boldly bring them to bear as you press across the threshold to extraordinary.