Reading True North: Your Greatest Crucible Exercise

What is your greatest crucible? The third chapter of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership explores the experiences that involved the greatest pressure, stress, and adversity in one’s life. Here is the exercise that follows that chapter.

The True North exercises:

  • Introduction Exercise
  • Chapter 1: Your Story Exercise
  • Chapter 2: Losing Your Way Exercise
  • Chapter 3: Your Greatest Crucible Exercise
  • Chapter 4: Knowing Your Authentic Self Exercise
  • Chapter 5: Practicing Your Values and Principles Exercise
  • Chapter 6: Your Motivations and Motivated Capabilities Exercise
  • Chapter 7: Building Your Support Team Exercise
  • Chapter 8: The Integrated Leader Exercise
  • Chapter 9: The Purpose of My Leadership Exercise
  • Chapter 10: Empowering Other Leaders Exercise
  • Chapter 11: Honing Your Leadership Effectiveness Exercise

Write freely about your greatest crucible and describe it in the following ways:

  • How did you feel at the time?
  • What resources did you call upon?
  • How did you resolve the issues, if you have?
  • How did it shape you and your views about the world?

It’s tough to choose just one experience as my greatest crucible. There have been many difficult experiences that altered my life. Here is one that comes to mind.

Back at Yahoo! (YHOO), I was given the honor of managing a large group of talented web developers. However, the team grew quite large, larger than my experience could handle at that time.

In one incident, a few members of my team helped launch a redesign of a major Yahoo! property. Unfortunately, this redesign was plagued with some troublesome bugs, a few of which were my team’s responsibility. Those few, unfortunately, were high-profile showstoppers and took a long time to fix. Too long. Soon, the bugs caught the attention of a VP, who sat me down to talk.

I still remember sitting there with a huge knot in my throat, trying to explain how the errors occurred. Fortunately, my team finally fixed them. But the VP did not see this as a sufficient solution. He saw a break in communications and our organizational structure that exacerbated the problem more than it should have been.

I also remember saying the words, “This is ultimately my responsibility and I take the blame. I will continue working with our teams to come up with a better solution.” And I think I might have even uttered the words, “I fucked up” in there too.

My face was red and hot. I thought that was the end of my career at Yahoo!. I imagined getting a call from HR and being shown the door. Part of the problem was that I didn’t catch this issue sooner, and I didn’t do that because I was overwhelmed by a large team. I knew that, and so did the VP.

Eventually, a long-term solution was implemented. There was a reorganization of my department. The incident wasn’t solely in my team, it was endemic to my department and the nature of our relationship to other teams at the company. While the reorg was a bummer to many, and resulted in a smaller, more focused team for me, it made sense from an organizational standpoint.

The VP didn’t blacklist me or have me fired. The incident taught me to be cognizant of my strengths and weaknesses, to balance my stretch goals with my abilities, and to think holistically from an organizational standpoint. As a crucible, it was damn tough – it was one I will never forget.

Describe any relationships, such as those with mentors, that had a transformative effect on you and your leadership. What did you learn from that relationship and how did it shape who you are?

I’ve never had a formal mentor, though I’ve always wanted one. In lieu of that, I’ve always looked at people that inspired me and emulated their effective traits.

Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky to have lots of great managers. Each excelled in some way. One is a technical genius with fantastic foresight into the high-tech industry, another is relentlessly customer-focused and data-driven, and another knew how to play the game of office politics well (I wish this knowledge wasn’t necessary or useful, but in large corporations, it sadly is).

Each has enhanced my world view and repetiore of skills. I can’t say I replicate them as well as these managers do, but I strive to. Each also challenged me, both directly and indirectly, to stretch past my comfort zones and evolve my skills. For that, I am eternally indebted to these inspiring individuals.

Describe any other experiences that triggered significant leadership development.

I’m guessing this question is seeking more crucible-like experiences, so let me this other incident:

While serving as the president of a cultural community service club in college, I was responsible for a street carnival. Unfortunately, I overslept that day. Since I’ve already written about it, I won’t go over all of the details. But it was definitely a harsh learning opportunity.

All in all, I would say I’ve had a lucky life. Now that I’ve formally started a profitable business of my own, I expect to face more crucibles. And I look forward to them.

In looking back on those experiences, what did you learn from them?

The debacle in college taught me to delegate properly, have faith in my delegates, and to make sure I get a good night’s rest before a big event.

In what ways have they helped you to grow?

They’ve all stretched me and taught me management skills. Be aware of the whole situation. Understand our dependencies and consequences. And like the Boy Scouts, Be Prepared.

How can you use these experiences to reframe your life story and to understand yourself and your life more fully? Are there ways in which these experiences are holding you back today?

One pattern I’ve noticed in my life is the constant push outside my comfort zones. I am and have always been an ambitious and demanding person. I always strive for personal success and demand a lot out of myself. Because of this, I frequently push myself outside my comfort – and ability – zones.

So when I fall far outside of my abilities, the consequences can have quite an impact.

Don’t get me wrong. Mistakes are good. Mistakes are fantastic learning opportunities. I celebrate a culture that allows experimentation, self-improvement, and forgiveness of mistakes.

However, there’s a practical limit to how disastrous a mistake can be. If it kills your organization, lands you in a lawsuit, and ends your marriage, that’s not a good kind of mistake. So as I continue to push myself, I will need to be mindful of my abilities’ limits.

Transformation from “I” to “We.”

Are you on “the hero’s journey”? Do you ever see yourself as the hero of your own journey?

I’ve always felt myself on a journey. The destination is surprisingly clear too, though I know I have to work hard for it – to be a good father and husband, to be an entrepreneur and business owner, to enact some kind of long-lasting beneficial change to my society and environment, and to leave a legacy.

However, I wouldn’t use the label “hero” for myself. That’s a little much. I see myself more as a catalyst that enables others to help make the vision a reality.

Though, I’d sure love to be a hero to my kids one day.

Have you made the transformation from “I” to “We”? If so, what triggered this transformation for you?

I like to think I have. In Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People“, he describes three sequential phases of growth:

  1. Dependence – We all start life being dependent on someone else, like our parents. Some remain at this level their whole lives.
  2. Independence – Many strive for this level. For some, this means self-reliance. For others, it means being a loner.
  3. Interdependence – Few reach this level. This is when you realize and behave as if the sum of two or more people (such as a spouse, teammates, etc) is greater than the parts.

While being a manager, I learned the power of interdependence. That may seem odd, since one view of a manager is as an autocratic entity working alone to control others. But that’s not always so. My management philosophy means working closely with my team and, in many ways, letting them lead the way with me in a supporting role – a catalyst for their ideas.

If you have not yet made this transformation, what would have to happen in your life and leadership for a transformation like this to occur?

I would say I’ve made that transformation already.

How would you answer these questions?

The True North exercises:

  • Introduction Exercise
  • Chapter 1: Your Story Exercise
  • Chapter 2: Losing Your Way Exercise
  • Chapter 3: Your Greatest Crucible Exercise
  • Chapter 4: Knowing Your Authentic Self Exercise
  • Chapter 5: Practicing Your Values and Principles Exercise
  • Chapter 6: Your Motivations and Motivated Capabilities Exercise
  • Chapter 7: Building Your Support Team Exercise
  • Chapter 8: The Integrated Leader Exercise
  • Chapter 9: The Purpose of My Leadership Exercise
  • Chapter 10: Empowering Other Leaders Exercise
  • Chapter 11: Honing Your Leadership Effectiveness Exercise

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

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