Leadership Insight: Leading Through Crucibles

In the realm of leader development, experience often trumps formal training. This valuable experience comes in many forms: on-the-job training, trail and error, and planned crucible events. In fact, crucible experiences are often thought of as a kind of super-concentrated form of leader development. When properly set up, managed, and mined, they help to develop the next generation of outstanding leaders.

A crucible experience is trial, test, or transformative experience that forces a person to question who they are and what matters. Leadership crucibles can take many forms: life-threatening events, periods of extreme self-doubt, or challenging situations that force one to confront their greatest fear. Whatever the nature, crucibles provide the opportunity for the participant to make sense of how they met the challenge presented and became a better leader through the process.

In a popular Harvard Business Review article Warren Bennis, the pioneer of modern leader development, lays out four essential skills developed in a crucible:

1. The ability to engage others in shared meaning
2. A distinctive and compelling voice
3. A sense of integrity (including a strong set of values)
4. Adaptive capacity/applied creativity- an almost magical ability to transcend adversity, with all its attendant stresses, and emerge stronger than before. It’s composed of two primary qualities: the ability to grasp context and hardiness.


Leadership lessons learned in the crucible of the outdoors translate extremely well to today’s chaotic business environment. Outdoor team building programs create crucible experiences that highlight team and individual strengths and force the team to learn how to compensate for shortcomings. Getting away from the boardroom and into an outdoor crucible experience allows team members the opportunity to step out of their traditional roles. These experiences also provide a proving ground to practice, and study the impact of, different leadership and communication styles and models.

At Lone Star Peak Performance, we see the impact outdoor team building has on leader development and organizational efficiency on a regular basis. Our conclusions are supported by a 2008 University of Utah study, “Long Term Impacts Attributed to Participation in Adventure Education” that found beyond outdoor and survival skills, participants gained critical leadership skills including:

• Effective handling of difficult circumstances
• The ability to work as a member of a team
• Strategic planning
• How to communicate positively with diverse types of people

Unfortunately, most companies do not provide opportunities for growth through planned crucible experiences. Companies need to follow the lead of Toyota, Boeing, and General Electric and implement training and development programs that take advantage of experiential learning.