The Leadership Crucible

Balancing the trials of leadership with the culture of work

What was the hardest, most excruciating decision you ever had to make? How did it test you and how were you changed? The greatest stories, the ones that survive the ages, most often come from the tough decisions people made and how they reacted to the consequences of those decisions. One story that comes to mind is a play called The Crucible by Arthur Miller.

At first glance, it is a book about the Salem Witch Trails in the late 1600's of colonial America. This was a period of time when the religious fervor of the Puritans boiled over into accusations of witchcraft and devil worship. This led to the burning at the stake of innocent women, charged on mere hearsay and intimidation to confess. 

The Crucible is also a modern day story. When Arthur Miller wrote the play during the 1950's, America was in the throes of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Political fervor took hold of the nation to root out Communism as the Soviet Union grew in power. Eventually Arthur Miller was asked to testify before Congress and implicate others as Communist sympathizers. He refused, leading to a contempt of Congress charge.

For Arthur Miller, the consequences were not dire. His conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court two years later. For many others however not as prominent and well-establish as Mr. Miller, they had their careers and livelihoods destroyed, leading to economic ruin or worse.

The term crucible has two meanings. The first is a container used to heat something to high temperatures. The second is a severe test or challenge, such as a trial where you are the defendant, and the potential consequences are life altering as described in Arthur Miller’s book.

I recently came across something Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon’s consumer business, shared about what he calls Crucible Moments. These are the moments of challenge and adversity where one learns the most about themselves and of leadership. Of these moments, Jeff says they are the, “fiery place with a healthy dose of inherent chaos.”

We have all experienced these moments throughout our careers. I can recall numerous times from my first big project to build and deploy a new sales system to helping a key customer re-architect their client/server system to the web in order not to lose a big state contract to troubleshooting a national outage of the main retail order system for a major telecom company. All of these were moments of high stress, tight deadlines, and significant impact on myself and others if I made the wrong decisions or delayed necessary action.

The Harvard Business Review explored the characteristics of leaders that allowed them to not just cope, but to thrive under pressure. The found four common and related traits:

  • Ability to engage in shared meaning - to find common ground & see others views

  • Distinctive and compelling voice - influence and persuade others using words

  • Sense of integrity and values - speaking with the power of moral authority

  • Adaptive capacity to grasp context with hardiness - to adapt and remain positive

The process of living through these crucible moments is a transformative experience. The memories end up shaping our frame of reference and how we fit into the world. They also inform our views on leadership, how we engage with others, and our response to future crises so that we can safely navigate those moments when they arise again.

There can also be a negative side of crucible moments. Rob England, formerly known as the IT Skeptic, recently shared this tweet about the glorification of work culture:

This bit of whiteboard wisdom is something I have often seen on LinkedIn. Like most of social media, the things people share are mostly projections of what they wish they were like. On a platform like LinkedIn, everyone wants to appear like they are working hard.

Not every views these posts as positively. The sentiment that seemed most objectionable in this particular post for Rob’s followers was the last part:

“Whenever you feel crushed, under pressure, pressed, or in darkness, you’re in a powerful place of transformation. Trust the process!”

It falls into the realm of what people call hustleporn. That is the dogma of people that push the mantra of “no pain, no gain”, “work hard, play hard”, and other drivel to make others feel like they are hopeless slackers. It also fosters a toxic work environment where people overwork themselves on the hamster wheel of corporate feudalism at the whim of managerial overlords.

This culture of workaholism has significant consequences. The World Health Organization found in a study that 745,000 people died in one year from stroke and heart disease due to long work hours, mostly affecting people in SouthEast Asia and the Western Pacific regions. The situation has worsened during the pandemic, with one agency stating that work from home led to an average of six hours of unpaid overtime a week.

That is the conundrum of the crucible. The struggle is important as a means to push beyond your personal limits and grow in experience and resilience. On the other hand, it can become a morale crushing cauldron that burns up any desire to excel.

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A better way then to view those crucible moments are as timeboxed events that you choose to pursue. There is a light at the end of the tunnel to a better outcome. If the crucible is an ongoing environment that is imposed upon you, then that is a sick system. Instead of being a growth opportunity, the crucible becomes a trap that locks us into toxic relationships rife with abuse.

For those of us pursuing and growing in our leadership capacity, we should want to experience the crucible. At the same time, as leaders we should be aware if workaholism and toxicity are creeping into the culture and crushing the hopes and enthusiasm of employees. To impose the crucible on others (other than for moments of genuine crisis) is to lead through fear and dictate. The true leaders eat last as Simon Sinek says in order to support the team, but they also walk upon the fire first before they subject their teams to the test.

What have been some of the crucible moments in your life and work? How did that moment change your outlook or perspective?

Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEV.BIZ.OPS

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Greetings, I took the last week off to decompress from some unfortunate news. I am no longer heading to Singapore this month as planned. With the latest lockdown in Singapore, my plans have been delayed to September at the earliest. I am however in full agreement with this path as the health and safety of people come first. I will keep you up to date though as my plans evolve.

On a positive note though, this week was my one year anniversary at AWS! It has been a fascinating journey and have learned so much since coming on board. Thanks again for Nelson Chan over in HK for nudging me to apply. I shared a brief video about my anniversary and all the changes that have come along the way.

In the meantime, I am still doing my regular Clubhouse shows, now covering the Americas, EMEA, and Asia-Pacific! This week alone I had two shows in EMEA, two post AWS Summit shows for ASEAN, and a show today in the Americas with the AWS APN and SaaS teams interviewing the CEO of Clumio.

Last week was also a busy one with the first ever AWS x Music Show! I invited the rapper Jim Jones to share about his tech startup Quarantine Studios, the first virtual recording studio in the cloud. The novel aspect to the virtual studio is that recording is done without any latency. It was a fascinating conversation though and we also had musicians, producers, and promoters on the show to share their perspectives on the future of MusicTech.

Besides Clubhouse, I continue to give talks around the world. Earlier in the day, I presented at the 95th Raid the Fridge event by Kickstart Ventures, the leading venture capital form in the Philippines. You can watch the replay here. I have another talk coming up next week with AWS partners Agorize on the topic “Building and engaging the startup community” with my good friend Andrew Shuttleworth on Wed, June 2nd at 6 PM SGT. You can sign up here to join us!

Last thing I wanted to mention is that I am always on the look out for awesome guests to join me for the AWS Startups Clubhouse talks. Let me know if you are interested, would be glad to have you join if you have something interesting you are doing with AWS, startups, or groundbreaking tech. Chat again next week 👋


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