The Crucible: Challenge, Character and Leadership


My favorite leadership quote seems apropos for some current political stories, for my own personal journey, and for some readers – perhaps you – this week.

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner write, “Name any great leader, performer, scientist, athlete, activist, citizen. Chances are that the crucible of that person’s crowning achievement was some distressing crisis, wrenching change, tragic misfortune, or risky venture. Only challenge produces the opportunity for greatness.” Leadership Challenge, p. 76

Some leaders in Congress and in Detroit bowed out this past week, as the Bunsen burners beneath the crucibles in which they found themselves, were heated to unbearable levels. On a personal level, Jennifer, Jack and I will head west from Michigan this week for a two-year stint teaching at Cal Berkeley.  Leaving my mom and two daughters feels like a “wrenching change,” and starting in a new place feels like quite a “risky venture.”  So, it has me thinking about that crucible idea.  Although we pick “risky ventures,” we generally don’t choose to have distressing crises, wrenching changes, and tragic misfortunes. But we do have some choice about how we will respond to all of these instances of strife. So, what can we do in the crucible to allow the heat to transform us so that we’ll actually become a new best self?

I have three thoughts:

1.  Pick the crucible, the holding vessel. I will never ever forget the first time I got back-stabbed in politics. I felt naked, felt like the whole world was watching and that many would silently judge me to be guilty of my worst fears: I wasn’t good, smart or special at all. I was and would be beaten.  I’ll never forget the friends who were there for me. The most common characteristic of those whose support I remember is that they were willing to feel my pain; they were there in the first place, and they didn’t run away – including to a land of platitudes and happy talk. If you’re in crisis, pick the friends who won’t preach or pretend but who will simply be there for you.  (If a loving God is available to you, how fortunate you are.)

2.  Assert for yourself that you will come out stronger, better. Re-read that quote from Kouzes and Posner as often as necessary.  It is profound wisdom that “only challenge produces greatness.” And it sure helps to envision greatness even in the darkest hour. (Golf nuts: how about Rory McIlroy? After a total heart-breaking and embarrassing collapse at the Masters, he said the day after that he thought this might help him build his character. He quoted Muhammad Ali about repeating affirmations. And yesterday he absolutely soared under pressure. Talk about challenge and greatness!)

3.  Pay attention, with as much openness as possible, to what life’s trying to teach you. As my former business partner M.A. Hastings was fond of saying, “don’t leave the loss without the learning.” Instead, actively seek to learn and to grow.

I pray for those like Anthony Weiner or Arnold Schwarzenegger or the others whose crises are so public. I think that if I judge that Arnold or Edwards or Kwame are undeserving of forgiveness and incapable of transformation through the crucible of their suffering, then how – but through the same hubris I might condemn in them – can I honestly believe that I can be transformed in character?  Am I so much better than them? Or is life such that when we lose ourselves for a time, perhaps that is our awesome chance to find ourselves.  I’m open to finding a new self in the challenges ahead, because that seems to me to be at the very heart of

Leading with your best self.


  • Dan:

    A well-told dramatic story is at least as effective to get this point across as is an exposition such as your essay on growing through crisis.

    To any of your readers who have let their self-education lapse since high school or college, I recommend reading or re-reading the play, The Crucible, by the late Arthur Miller. Better yet, attend a production. It is a favorite of high-school drama department directors.

    Of course, many high schools are now unable to fund arts programs. That’s a subject for further discussion. How are we to learn from the present financial and economic crisis without the understanding and without the depth of moral insight that only the arts can instill?

    Yours, Vince

  • “Only challenge produces the opportunity for greatness.” I can take that in different ways. We can say that luck, and the support and encouragement of others helps, and so greatness is the product of a number of factors. Recent psychological and neurological studies put into question the ability of some persons being able to overcome, or even recognize their destructive activities toward other humans. That is a challenge for our time, where if we set high standards, can we also find a way to change the people who actively seek to prevent those standards from being considered, or followed?

    Questions in this multidisciplinary study is, why do some persons ignore facts that go against their belief system? Why do some persons think they are empowered, or justified in using any unethical behaviour to accomplish their goals? Excessive riteousness. Why are some persons less able to see that their rules, conclusions, theories, ideology is not working?

    When in any organization we find persons who are authoritarian we find these traits, and a culture which permits it. If a person does what Dan Mulhern so often teaches, set high standards, he sets himself up as a target. If a person decides to set high standards, they are jumping in the crucible. That term makes me think of the “refiners fire” entry in the Bible. Except that on earth the pure or at least good of heart, who would be spared by The Refiner’s fire, can be consumed in the human crucible.

  • In worship this weekend we heard from a victim of childhood sex abuse. All he wanted to do was forget all about it and move on, but he discovered that he couldn’t fly over the pain; he had to with God’s help work his way through it. Now that he is on the other side of that horrible experience, he says that if he had the choice he truly would go through it all again, as terribly painful as it was. That’s hard to beleive, but he said it. It made him the man he is today.

    God does not want us happy as much as he wants us holy, and holiness will at times require us to pass through the fire. Moses spent 40 years in the Midian desert. Joseph spent years in prison. David spent a lot of time on the run from his former mentor. Those experiences prepared them to be the leaders whom God created them to be.

    Much of our growth takes place not on the mountain top, but in the deep, dark valley.

    • Thanks Scott for this post…So we can work towards and become a new best self we must remember… “God does not want us happy as much as he wants us holy, and holiness will at times require us to pass through the fire. Much of our growth takes place not on the mountain top, but in the deep, dark valley.” Thanks again…!

  • This is a beautiful and moving post, Dan. I especially appreciate the reminder not to judge those who’ve fallen and learn to forgive. We never know when we might be next.

  • Dan,
    When The Book says: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected”, it may mean hard times as well as good fortune. Doesn’t it seem that some of the best writing, art, and thinking comes from the most extreme times…(the crucible-s).
    How good it is to know that every time we open our mouths, we either lift someone up or we crucify them… ….And similarly, that “whatever falls into our hands”, is a test to see how we will do (where we have to “do it with all our might”). None of us does it as well as we would like every time. Our adventures are as a good book or movie, rarely do we know all of the twists and turns ahead. With the right heart and attitude, so many good things can happen (even during the slings and the arrows). Tenacity and revisiting our directions are always good for us.
    When you get to the west coast, be sure to go up to the John Muir Woods (just across the Golden Gate). They have a slice of an old tree that came down where they mark off the tree rings so you can see when Columbus sailed and when so many other events took place. It reaffirms how short history is and how important it is that we find a way to enjoy each part of the journey while we’re here (even little kindnesses that occur during the most difficult of times).
    Thanks for another chance to reconfigure our focus.

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