Shaping Leaders through Experience, Transitions, and Challenges

I saw it in a two friends one is a CEO one is a COO.  We had not talked for over a year as I was buried in my academic program and they were both transferred to new assignments.  When I caught up to these friends of mine I was frankly astonished at how they had changed.  They both possessed a measurable growth and depth in their confident demeanor and aura of authority.  I wasn’t seeing arrogance or self promotion.  They carried themselves with a sense of confident purpose that they had not previously exhibited.
The change was so noticeable I shared my observation and asked them what they thought contributed to the change I was seeing.  Both described how entering a new and more challenging situation opened up new ways of seeing themselves.  Their new assignments had required that they step into a new sense of situational awareness, self-confidence and growing competence as leaders.

These men had been through a boundary in their development.  The change each of these men faced was not easy both assignments required that they alter the trajectory of failing organizations.  They both had to step in to difficult situations, use their experience to size up the problems and outline the steps needed to bring change.  They had to move quickly to stop the hemorrhage of cash and talent.  Neither one really had the time to second guess their actions until after the changes had taken place.

A boundary represents a point at which a leader faces the necessity of moving to depth in: skills, perspective or self-awareness to continue in and grow in effectiveness.  Facing these barriers means that leaders have the opportunity to:[1]

  • Bring to closure recent experiences – closure identifies significant lessons and allows the person to move forward.
  • Deepen relationship to God or spiritual depth – growing in spiritual depth or relationship to God does not result in religious weirdness it results in a clearer picture of purpose, moral fabric and awareness of others’ current and potential contribution.  One of my friends identifies himself as a Christian the other does not. But both describe a deeply spiritual experience in the challenges they faced.
  • Expand perspective to see new things – without the challenge of barriers or challenges people often tend to plateau in their growth.  I am reminded of the now proverbial definition of insanity attributed to Peter Drucker i.e., doing the same activity over and over expecting different results.
  • Make decisions that launch a new phase of development – this development extends to everyone within reach of the leader’s influence.  The entire organization benefits when leaders successfully navigate the barriers to their personal growth.

Leaders develop through their careers through boundary events characterized in one of three ways. Boundary events are either powerfully formative or devastatingly destructive.  It is not the experience itself that determines the outcome in leaders lives.  Individual choices determine the outcomes of these boundary experiences.  Outcomes are not inherent in the experience itself.[2]

New Experience – defined as being thrust into new terrain – an overseas assignment, unexpected turn of events in business or family life, new social or organizational role etc.  The challenge in new experience is to overcome disorientation and weave it into one’s own experiential tapestry and not be consumed by it.  Both friends of mine made this kind of choice. As a result they found themselves not only challenged but also enjoying their work.  Be aware of the frame through which you view new experiences.  Your first impressions will most likely be wrong. Ask questions.  Learn to rely on others, gain common ground by telling stories and encouraging others to share their views. Remember that events may conspire to make you a leader more than any inherent talent or unique ability.

Setback – loss or failure that is profoundly disruptive and bewildering – what was permanent is transient what was believed is questioned. The challenge in setbacks is to see one’s situation in a fundamentally new – and more comprehensive – way.  Seeing this bigger picture is often tremendously freeing.  A more comprehensive perspective introduces new opportunities and options that were previously hidden by the individual’s short-sightedness.  In today’s difficult economic environment setbacks are common.  What is not as common is watching people use setbacks to define a new sense of meaning and purpose and skill.

Deferral – an unanticipated hiatus during which routines are set aside, sometimes forcibly, and replaced with regimented structure or no structure at all.   Deferrals challenge leaders to clarify or create their personal mission and purpose; to cement their foundational beliefs and values.  These foundational beliefs and values are critical to shaping organizational culture, creating powerful delegation and unleashing innovation.

The significance of identifying boundaries is twofold.  First, experiencing boundaries is normal and is not a sign of fate aligned against the person.  I do occasionally meet people so narcissistic they believe that everything and everyone is against them – effective leaders do not have time for such self-absorption. Second, boundaries tend to cluster around specific periods of development. New territory boundaries seem to cluster in early career, reversals tend to cluster in mid-carrier and suspension seems to cluster around later career.  Even though this clustering pattern is clear it is not absolute – all three boundary experiences are present at any time.  But recognizing the clustering pattern does help leaders (1) recognize boundaries to development sooner and (2) expect their arrival to capitalize on the learning experience sooner.

The question then is how do you handle your boundary times? Do new experiences, setbacks or deferred hopes collapse your personal sense of purpose and emotional resilience?  Or do you use these boundary times to engage learning and development to see new things about yourself and your situation?  It takes a certain amount of courage to face change I saw this courage in my friends.  In fact I was a little envious of the difficulties they had been through.  I liked the men and the leaders they had become…I embrace my own boundary times in hope that my own growth will be as evident to others as my friends’ growth is to me.  If you are stuck in a boundary experience it is time to talk to someone about it.  Don’t let a boundary undo you – make it work for you.

[1] J Robert Clinton. Leadership Emergence Theory: A Self-Study Manual for Analyzing the Development of the Christian Leader (Pasadena, CA: Barnabas Resources, 1989).

[2] Robert J. Thomas. Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2008).

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