How Have Your Crucibles Defined You As A leader?


In his book, Discover Your True North, acclaimed leadership expert and former CEO of Medtronic, Bill George shares how we can find our leadership 'True North' through the stories of 125 well-known leaders. Central to Bill George's philosophy of leadership is the idea that as leaders we experience 'crucibles.' It's how we respond to these crucibles that defines who we are as leaders.

A crucible is both a severe test, after which something new emerges, as well as a container made of a substance that can resist great heat. You may be familiar with Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, which was inspired by the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, and draws on historical accounts of the Salem witch trials to explain the extreme behaviours that can result from dark desires and hidden agendas.

Miller's title, The Crucible, is particularly apposite. Within the context of the play the term ‘crucible’ takes on a new meaning: not only is the crucible a test, but a test designed to bring about change or reveal an individual's true character. Throughout the play, Miller carefully peels away the layers of each character so that the audience can not only identify the character's motivation, but also evaluate the character through his or her actions.

Bill George’s Discover Your True North encourages us to reflect on the crucibles that have shaped us and our view of the world. Because it’s these crucibles – and our response to them - that reveals who we are.

One of my own crucibles came during my first senior management role while I was in my late-20’s. Newly appointed to the organisation, my then line manager subjected me to regular bullying and harassment. My job required me to periodically be on call and ‘sleep in.’ I awoke one morning to find my manager in my on-call flat at 6.30am while I was in my PJs and sleepy eyed. Clearly he had no business being there so I complained to his line manager. She informed me – in no uncertain terms – that the problem was mine and dismissed my complaint out of hand.

Now with a free hand, my manager increased his intimidation and set about trying to ruin my career. I sought advice and discovered I had employment rights. I fought back with a legal claim for sex discrimination which I won, but which was not an experience I would want to repeat.

Traumatic moments propel many people into a downward spiral. After an experience of discrimination or harassment, there can be a tendency to see yourself as weak – thinking there must be something wrong with you. Seeing yourself from a strengths-based perspective is part of the process of healing. As is looking back on the experience to consider what you learnt from it, and how it has shaped your view of the world.

I was subsequently assigned a kind and thoughtful line manager who helped me rebuild my confidence and recover from the experience. Sadly I’ve lost touch with him now, but I will always be forever grateful for his patient guidance in the aftermath of what was a traumatic experience.

This personal experience of being bullied in the workplace made me a far better manager as it encouraged me to think about the impact my own actions and behaviours had on others. I became acutely aware of unfairness and injustice and determined to act fairly towards my own direct reports and employees: to get the facts first before coming to conclusions. Most importantly it made me an unwavering advocate for human rights, diversity and inclusion.

There are times in life when we get knocked down. The question is how we respond, and whether we will come back stronger than ever. It’s easy to suppress our crucibles and come at life from an angry or fearful place. I encourage you to embrace life’s uncertainties and reframe these as learning opportunities.


How have you dealt with an experience of great pressure, stress or adversity? How did this shape your view of the world? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to tell me in the comments box below.


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