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Clarity Through Crisis: Leading in a VUCA world

May 19, 2022

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Stephen Moles

Director, Leadership & Talent Development
United States Institute of Peace

Have you ever gone through an intense and turbulent time and later discovered that you learned something important about yourself in the process? I know I have, and it got me thinking.

There are many complex crises in our line of work that challenge leaders – natural disasters, civil strife, refugees and resettlement, evacuations, etc.  These challenges can form “crucibles” that spur leadership growth, clarity of values, and wisdom. When I have faced personal and professional crises, it has helped me develop self-knowledge and find my “true north” (George, 2007).  Crises crystalized what principles and approaches would guide my actions and align with my values. It helped me to find direction and courage when I felt exhausted and lost.

One example is when I was working in a development organization during and after the 9/11 attacks. Programs were in flux, staff and partners were at risk, and tensions were high. We were not sure if we could keep operating in some predominantly Muslim countries. There was a lot of worry and fear that verged on demonization, “othering” and stereotypes. In winter of 2002 I convened an international conference of “Working in Muslim countries” and structured it using dialogue tools. In the face of fear and prejudice, we found our “true north” in our common humanity and common mission. We shared stories about values we learned as a child and came to discover that we all “had the same Grandma.”

The field of leadership has long struggled with how to define leadership and how to support the growth and development of leaders. Trends in the field see a shift away from the skills and traits associated with good leadership and toward transformative change and “inner work.” Although not a leadership work per se, the origins of the crucible approach can be seen in the seminal work of Viktor Frank in his masterpiece “Man’s search for meaning” (1962). Determined to persevere while in a Nazi concentration camp, Frankl was driven to clarify his purpose and beliefs.

This idea of purpose-driven change coming out of adversity was picked up and developed in a leadership context in the much-lauded Harvard Business Review article “The crucibles of leadership” (Bennis and Thomas 2002) in which the authors assert that “our recent research has led us to conclude that one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances” and that “intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences” caused the leaders to be transformed, and had “become the sources of their distinctive leadership abilities.”

Years later, this moral clarity came into focus again for me when I was pressured by a senior leader to remove reference to sexual orientation from the diversity training courses and manual that I was drafting. I gently refused and persisted until eventually the project went forward as written.  I remember saying to a colleague at the time that adversity had helped me get clear about “what I will stand up for” and “what I will not stand for.”

Crucibles can lead to a clarification and strengthening of a leader’s values and integrity.  As Bennis and Thomas (2002) note, “the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, question their assumptions, hone their judgment.” In his book “True North (2014), Bill George further elaborates that “True North represents what is most important to us in life: our beliefs, our most cherished values, our passions and motivations, and the sources of satisfaction in our lives. True North is the orienting point that keeps us on track as human beings and as leaders. It represents who we are at our deepest level.”

Leaders at all levels are now asked to be adaptive and self-aware, and to employ impeccable judgment in the face of complex and changing circumstances. Knowledge and expertise are no longer sufficient. Leaders must now also develop wisdom to thrive while serving. One expression of this comes from Kouzes and Posner (2014) in their book “Leadership Challenge” where they say, “Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.” When they asked leaders to “describe their personal leadership best,” the leaders described growth that came from “the most difficult periods of their careers.” Being a leader in service of a higher purpose gives rise to crucibles and ongoing learning and development.

If we are to be leaders for positive change, we can leverage “crucible” events (Bennis and Thomas 2002) to further our own and our colleague’s transformative growth.

Questions to consider when learning from a crucible event:

  1. What was your crucible? How did it unfold?  Was there a crisis or conflict that gave rise to the crucible? What was a pivot point for you personally and what brought it on?
  2. How did you change and grow as a result?  How did this impact you as a leader?
  3. What is your true north, and how has this helped you and others around you to overcome subsequent challenges?



– Bennis, W., and Thomas. R (2002). The crucibles of leadership. Harvard Business Review.
– Frankl, V. (1962). Man’s search for meaning. Beacon Press.
– George, B. (2007). True north: Discover your authentic leadership. Jossey-Bass.
– Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2014). Turning adversity into opportunity. John Wiley & Sons.

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