Leaders to Leader

Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

Are You Willing to Pay the Price?

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All of the great leaders I surveyed experienced what I describe as the Crucible Principle. It states that: Individuals experience a prolonged, but undetermined period of adversity, disappointment, discouragement and failure early in their careers, which either refines them or breaks their spirits. How they respond to these circumstances will define their character, refine their critical thinking and establish their legitimacy as a leader.

Individuals who do not undergo crucible development early in their careers will not develop the critical thinking skills and character to handle adversities, problems and crisises that will arise in the future. This will result in more difficulties, which will place them at a disadvantage, and undermine their legitimacy as a leader.

Leadership greatness is achieved only after individuals experience an emotional caldron full of adversity, setbacks, failures and obstacles that refine both their character and their vision. It is a period where courage and fortitude are tested and cultivated. In general, many individuals who experience the Crucible Principle encounter unrelenting waves of pain, disappointment, chaos, confusion and discouragement. They see no end in sight. They simply give up and quit.

“Resilience from the trials of life’s adversity has always been the filter that separates folk heroes from other leaders. Anthropologist Joseph Campbell profiled ancient leaders across cultures and revealed a shared ability to transcend crushing defeat. This was rooted in a drive for a lasting legacy that can provide for a mythic sense of purpose to ‘triumph the despair and shame of failure. Setbacks actually challenge us to come back with an even greater sense of mission…

Many other great leaders, such as Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, Staples founder Tom Steiuherg and Jet Blue founder David Neelenian, created revolutionary enterprises only after having been fired as victims of power struggles. Others, such as Autodesk’s Carol Bartz, led strategic transformations while battling life-threatening health crises; and some, such as lifestyle maven Martha Stewart, came back as a hugely successful leader following time served in prison. ” [1]

The existence of this principle and the number of times it surfaced was particularly surprising during the course of my research. The great leaders surveyed experienced difficult levels of adversity, including a sizable number of obstacles they had to overcome. Success didn’t come easy to them, and it was far from automatic. They were relentless in the levels of persistence they demonstrated, buttressed by the strength of their personal vision. They refused to quit and accept failure. When they encountered failure, they picked themselves up and started over again, and sometimes more than once, until they ultimately succeeded.

The existence of the Crucible Principle was supported by the fact that the average age of the leaders surveyed who started their business or achieved their first major corporate position, was 34 years old. This means between 13 to 16 years of their lives were spent working their way into a position of responsibility. This data is predicted on the assumption that most started working when they were between 18 to 21 years old. Some notable examples include:Jack Welch, who started his career at General Electric as a junior engineer, almost left in frustration during his first year,Arthur Vining Davis (Alcoa) was the third employee to be hired at the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (Alcoa) as an assistant; and Arthur Blank (Home Depot), who began his career with the Handy Dan Hardware Company, where he worked for 14 years until he was fired as a regional manager.

An additional significant factor was the duration of the application of the Crucible Principle. My research establishes that it averages 12 years in length. This typically is a period filled with pain, heartache, frustration and failure. The great leaders’ ability to succeed and prevail ultimately determined their future success. For any individual seeking immediate success, this should be an eye opening fact. During my own younger years a personal mentor constantly reminded me: “The wheel of success turns very slowly.” Some notable examples of the Crucible Principle include Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines), who waged a four-year legal battle before he flew a single passenger, just to incorporate and start-up his airline. During the early years of its existence, he was forced to sell one of his four airplanes to meet his payroll.

It took Joe Wilson, president of the Haloid Company, twelve years of frustration and continuous investment to commercialize a patent that he had purchased for xerography, to produce the first Xerox machine.

Jeff Bezos observed, “Optimism is essential when trying to do anything difficult because difficult things often take a long time. That optimism can carry you through the various stages as the long term unfolds. And it’s the long term that matters.” [2]

Once the great leaders emerged and achieved levels of prominence, they averaged 25 years in their positions. This does not mean that their lives were easy and carefree. These typically were periods of continuing conflict and adversity, yet they also were the most productive periods of their lives.

Malcolm McLean had founded a successful trucking business. Looking for a way to solve shipping bottlenecks and lower overall costs, he used his resources to develop containerizing cargo. His innovations ultimately revolutionized the shipping industry through the standardization of an integrated system of containers, ships, railroads and harbor facilities. His ideas virtually impact the entire world due to the expansion of global trading.

Henry Flagler made his fortune as John D. Rockefeller’s partner at Standard Oil. He used his considerable financial resources to create the tourism industry in the State of Florida by building railroads and elegant resorts.

[1] Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Fired With Enthusiasm (Directorship) April 1. 2007

[2] Rob Walker, Jeff Bezos: Amazon.com – America’s 25 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs (Inc. Magazine) April 1, 2004

Excerpt: Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, 2011)

If you would like to learn more about the sacrifices experienced by the great American leaders and how they overcame them through their own inspiring words and stories, refer to Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It. It illustrates how great leaders built great companies, and how you can apply the strategies, concepts and techniques that they pioneered to improve your own leadership skills. Click here to learn more.

Copyright © 2011 Timothy F. Bednarz All Rights Reserved

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  1. […] Are You Willing to Pay the Price? (via Leaders to Leader) All of the great leaders I surveyed experienced what I describe as the Crucible Principle. It states that: Individuals experience a prolonged, but undetermined period of adversity, disappointment, discouragement and failure early in their careers, which either refines them or breaks their spirits. How they respond to these circumstances will define their character, refine their critical thinking and establish their legitimacy as a leader. Individ … Read More […]


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