The Refining Fires of Leadership: Surviving and Reemerging from Failure or Loss

All great leaders have faced a moment or moments in their lives when they experienced great loss, engaged in personal failings, faced some health or financial calamity, or met a moment that was beyond their ability to handle. It is the “crucible of leadership,” as Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas named these experiences in their famous Harvard Business Review article. Without these refining fires that craft the person into a leader of resolve, courage and character, there often is little transformation or progress that leads to personal and professional greatness.

The challenge for us as leaders and potential leaders is that we assume that life and work should always be fair, or rosy, or positive– either because we view ourselves too highly, or because our lives up to a point were fairly easy or privileged without significant trial or struggle. Then, when these moments do, and they inevitably do for all of us, we feel that the Universe has targeted us, that God has forgotten us, or that our bosses have been unfair to us because, we assume, things should always go my way. It takes a lot of living to learn that life does not always go our way. Sometimes it will be unfair. Sometimes people you respect or love will be trapped in organizational systems that cause them to fail you. Other times, luck or economics just don’t go our way. People change. Loved ones pass away. Careers end. Those who try to resist these human experiences often find themselves in places of psychological torment or even mental illness. We are human, and limitations are part of that experience.

If we can see these moments as a path on the way to leadership, then we can welcome these moments as times of trial, testing grounds, and periods of transformation. If we feel these times are unwarranted or undeserved, we will learn nothing, and we will remain stuck in our ruts and habits that are preventing us from progressing on the paths toward leadership and personal growth. If we blame others for our situations, and continue to rehearse wrongs done to us, we will miss the moment that could have been the exact moment of our personal or professional salvation.

Bennis and Thomas write in their article on the crucibles of leadership, “Indeed, 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. Put another way, the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.” Bennis and Thomas found that the one quality all leaders had in common was the experience of traumatic, unplanned or unlucky experiences that transformed them and became the source of their distinctive leadership abilities. As Richard Rohr so well summarizes in his beautiful book Falling Upward, “The way up is down.”

I recently participated in a panel on sexual and physical abuse in religious organizations, and I was surprised to learn how often religious and others leaders experienced emotional or physical abuse as children. We’ve all heard the stories of how many presidents, such as Nixon, Clinton and Obama, had very strong mother figures in their lives that were the source of inspiration but also of emotional difficulty. Great leaders must go through the refining fires, and often because we need it. The spiritual writer Iyanla Van Zant was one of Oprah’s most frequent guest on her daily TV program, but Van Zant’s life fell apart, along with her relationship with Oprah. Van Zant reflects in her latest book, Peace from Broken Pieces, here and cited in part here:

“You see, somewhere deep inside, we know that lives are not built to fall apart. That is just not what lives are meant to do. The lives we are given by God are meant by God to grow, to blossom and flourish. The reality is, however, lives do crumble.  I now realize that lives fall apart when they need to be rebuilt. Lives fall apart when the foundation upon which they were built needs to be relaid. Lives fall apart, not because God is punishing us for what we have or have not done. Lives fall apart because they need to.”

That is tough news to hear when you’re going through a crisis, but it is also liberating news. It is freeing because we are now free to escape the tendency to blame the Universe or others for our crucible and to welcome it as a moment of transformation that will lead to our improvement and emergence as a leader with an authentic voice. We can now build a narrative around these events, telling the story of how we were challenged, met the challenge and emerged as better people and better leaders. In fact, you may just find in later reflection that your best qualities and your best experiences were formed right there in the refining fires of leadership.

There are all kinds of refining fires that shape us: death of a loved one, financial loss or bankruptcy, a business failure, a personal moral failings, or even the prejudices of others. There are few experiences that are more professionally devastating than to be the target of another’s prejudice or discrimination, whether it is because of age, race, gender or orientation. To feel that there is a glass ceiling beyond which you cannot progress, no matter how hard you work or how excellent you perform, is demoralizing. To witness a person in authority that you may even respect holding out prejudices against you can create dysfunctional and destabilizing experiences of anger, frustration, or withdrawal. Yet, those of us who have experienced such prejudice may find that the experience created a stronger sense of fairness in us, or enabled us to empathize with other employees or customers of diversity, or built in us a heart of resolve, courage and integrity. If so, then we will be better leaders in the future, despite the prejudices now. Ask Oprah Winfrey, or Anderson Cooper, or Gen. Colin Powell, or President Obama. Leadership is often forged in the refining fires, and few refining fires are so transformative as prejudice. We can emerge as stronger leaders from prejudice if we do not allow the experience to define us, but rather we see the discriminating individuals in context, maintain our integrity, challenge them appropriately, and refuse to play the victim. Chinese dissident Sidney Rittenberg was imprisoned unjustly for 16 years in China,  and he survived by remembering a poem from his childhood:

They drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win,

We drew a circle that took them in!

Many of his fellow prisoners were angry, or withdrew from life altogether. Rittenberg continued to read, write and develop his mind so that he went on to found one a successful business consulting firm Rittenberg Associates upon his release.

If the refining fires can be for our good, how do we survive them, take the high road and transform ourselves into better leaders?

1. First, understand the context and create a narrative of your experience. Solicit feedback from others. Engage in some introspective reflection. Review your behavior. Before you ask how others contributed to the situation, how did you contribute to it? Do these events match patterns of events or recurring cycles in your life? What have you learned about your organization or yourself that can help you frame these events in a way that is constructive and not demoralizing for you?

2. Stay true to yourself but take the high road with others. Don’t sacrifice important parts of yourself or your dreams to please others, but also don’t blame others for your situation, and especially not in public. It burns bridges that you may need later, it usually overlooks the good that has come from that person or the situation, and is unprofessional and tacky. If you want an example of how the high road looks in face of adversity, here are two great examples, one from Conan O’Brien and another from Today show host Ann Curry.

3. This too will end. During moments of personal crisis, I often have lost touch with reality. Mole hills become mountains. I told myself that I would never work again, or never love again, or never be respected in my field again. None of that proved true. In time, I usually emerged as a more credible and respected person and leader. Losses become sweet memories. Meaningful and lucrative work does reappear. We again find our grounding. This is possible if we trust that our Creator has made us for a purpose, that our lives have meaning and a destination, that the Universe is working for our good and not our demise, and that time heals many wounds. As Emily Dickinson once wrote in one of her poems,  one day “I shall forget the drop of Anguish that scalds me now.”

4. If it is a matter of personal or professional failing, apologize and update those effected on the steps you’re taking to improve. After some reflection and appropriate space, a sincere apology to those we have impacted, disappointed or hurt is necessary if we are regain our footing, learn from our mistakes, and restore our relationships. Even if you feel the other party will not apologize to you, do it anyway. Apologies transform us, the situation and often the others involved. However, it’s not enough just to apologize. We show our sincerity and resolve by telling those we impacted of the steps we are taking to learn from our failures and of how we are progressing.

4. Get up, start doing something and engage your passion again. Refining fires can leave us burnt and bruised, but it’s important not to let the fires overcome us. Resilient leaders understand what happened, learn from it, transform what needs to be transformed, and then begin walking in a direction. When I have faced these moments in my life, I spent way too long in analysis, in paranoia, in wondering why someone didn’t respond to a call or email, or finding distractions like social media, relationships or personal projects. The world needs what you have to offer. Don’t wait for perfect plans, or for everyone to like you or endorse you. When some time has passed, and you’ve had the space for personal reflection and transformation, it’s time to get moving again.

Don’t avoid the fires. Don’t try to extinguish them. Fires are certain. Loss, failure, and ethical lapses are part of what it means to be human. The good news is that they don’t have to be the end of the story.

Learn from them, keep your integrity, take the high road, and keep your hope. Your best days are ahead, and you may find that you are exactly where you always dreamed of being personally and as a leader, but just as a different person than you ever dreamed possible.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” 
― T.S. EliotFour Quartets


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