The Power of Personal Leadership – It Starts with You!

“Leaders who succeed again and again are geniuses at noticing context.” — Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas

The literature on leadership often emphasizes that leadership is about "leading others". Take a fresh look at the true starting point of leadership. It starts with you - to succeed in life, you must first lead yourself. The term "personal leadership" refers to a set of attributes - such as vision, optimism, conviction, integrity - that allow us to take the lead in our lives, rather than leaving it to chance, circumstance or time to define a direction. These life skills tied to leadership enable us to overcome life's challenges - which we will call "crucibles" in this post - and turn them into opportunities for personal growth.

My leadership skills were first put to the test in my last year of elementary school when I was a victim of bullying. The local school system made a big distinction between "city-born residents" and "non-city-born residents" to whom I belonged and who were considered "second-class citizens". This prompted my headmistress, Fräulein Heinzius, to constantly mock my chubby cheeks and express deep concern about my academic abilities and future prospects (She used Ad Hominem arguments). In math class, she derisively declared - "Oh Malou Dir geht endlich ein Licht auf" or "You are finally starting to see a light" - suggesting that my grasp of mathematics was a source of wonder. Fräulein Heinzius deliberately attempted to make me feel insignificant and worthless, seeking to undermine my ability to see myself as desirable and capable, at the risk of adversely affecting my future. However, her repeated efforts to erode my self-esteem failed, as I created my own interpretation of her sadistic conduct - a narrative that empowered me instead of embittering me. When I looked at Fräulein Heinzius in my rearview mirror, I did not see an inspiring and strong leader. I saw a 60-year-old woman struggling desperately because her time – “the time” that had propelled her to power - was about to run out. Her mocking remarks about my appearance and my presumed inability to finish high school hinted at her distress over her impending retirement. When she realized that I was preparing to build a successful life - the kind of life she had always dreamed of - she was deeply troubled. Confronting the "pettiness" of Fräulein Heinzius was my “crucible” to which I conferred, consciously or unconsciously, a redemptive meaning. I vowed to work as hard as I could to realize my dreams so that my future would prove her wrong – and I did prove her wrong – I invalidated her predictions by earning two advanced college degrees.

Bennis and Thomas - two Harvard researchers - developed a groundbreaking model of leadership and learning that describes an almost magical process by which ordinary people of any age emerge as leaders and succeed - however they define success - not just once but again and again. The findings of this landmark study led to the discovery of an effective process that allows individuals facing life-changing experiences – which they call “crucibles” – to emerge not only stronger, but also equipped with the essential tools to lead and learn.

The two-year cross-generational study was originally designed to compare the effects of era on the development of leadership qualities and values of two disparate age groups: one group that grew up digital, called "Geeks" and one group that reached adulthood during the Great Depression and World War II, called "Geezers". In total, they interviewed 43 participants between the ages of 21 and 93. It should be noted that geezers - men and women between the ages of 70 and 93 - continued to make important contributions to professions, industries and society. While the two groups differed in many ways – IQ, family wealth, education level, ethnicity, race and gender; all participants shared one common characteristic: they all experienced at least one defining life-changing event or “crucible”.

At the heart of Bennis and Thomas' leadership model, the researchers identified "adaptive capacity" as the signature skill of all leaders in the study, young or old, geeks or geezers.

Adaptive capacity is the ability to transcend adversity and to process new experiences by creating "context and meaning" around the crucible(s) in ways that foster the development of leadership qualities. These leadership skills are essential for initiating change and growth, not for a time, but for a lifetime.

We all face crucibles in our lives, whether it is the death of a child, the loss of a job or a return to school. Crucibles are deeply transformative events from which one can either emerge broken or profoundly inspired to acquire new tools to learn and become a leader. They are turning points that force us to decide who we are and what we are capable of.

Thus, when tested by "crucibles", future leaders do not feel helpless or paralyzed, they look at the same events that destabilize the less resourceful and experience crucibles as "meaning-creating” events and, therefore, plan a course of action - identifying and seizing opportunities that would not have existed otherwise.

Clearly, “adaptive capacity” is the hallmark of effective leaders and, ultimately, the defining skill for anyone who seeks new ways to learn and is willing to take on new challenges and to retain that ability over the years despite life’s inevitable challenges and losses.

At the end of this post ask yourself: Am I a leader? If so, what are my crucible experiences? How do I measure up in terms of adaptive capacity, vision, conviction, and integrity? What may I change in the way I handle myself in future leadership situations?

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