Leadership lessons from the world of blacksmithing
This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org and is reposted here by permission.
The first thing you notice when you walk through the large industrial door is that this is a place for serious work.
Everything can hurt you.
In a blacksmithing shop, even an urban shop like this one that is for teaching city dwellers an ancient art, every tool is heavy or sharp. Every piece of equipment is loud and potentially dangerous. And at every workstation, there is not a computer or a desk, but a forge putting out 2,000 degrees of fire and heat.
The second thing you notice is that there is a place for you. This is a place for your serious work. Your tools. Your forge. And yes, your anvil.
“The only safe place for something this hot is on an anvil,” the instructor would tell us later when we were using tongs to wield a piece of steel heated to over 1,200 degrees. But right now, the anvil with my name chalked on it and the fiery forge in front of it was my own workspace. For the next several hours, this would be the place where I would participate in a dual transformation: transforming steel into a tool and transforming me from an interested bystander into a novice blacksmith.
As someone with decades of experience teaching and coaching about leadership in the church and the academy, I could quickly see the parallels between blacksmithing and leadership development. In blacksmithing, through a slow, deliberate, repetitive—and sometimes dangerous—process of heating, holding, hammering and quenching, steel becomes a tool that is both beautiful and useful. And leaders go through a similar process.
Just like you can’t learn to blacksmith unless you feel the heat of the forge on your face and the weight of the hammer in your hands, you can’t learn leadership from a safe distance, either. Just as a piece of steel cannot be transformed into a tempered tool by sitting in the shop, we can’t be transformed into the strong, resilient, wise leaders need for challenging times without being plunged into the forge, placed on the anvil and pounded into shape. This is why the famous words of Harry Truman are often repeated as a warning to leaders: “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”
LEADING WHILE LEARNING
Leadership is learned in leading. And the hardest part of leadership—leading change—requires that you continue to lead while learning. The moment you become a leader is usually the moment right after you were most successful at something that was not leading. You were the best preacher, so you became the senior pastor. You were the best scholar, so you were invited to become dean of the faculty. You were the best fundraiser for the nonprofit and now you are the new executive director. So right when you were “promoted” to being a leader, you had to start the process of learning all over again. While there are concepts to learn from books, videos, classrooms and online courses, the actual transformation doesn’t occur until you are engaged in the leadership challenge in real-time, with real people, facing real consequences of your decisions and actions.
If the shop represents the formation of a leader, the forge is the fire of vulnerable self-reflection which makes the leader ready for that formation. If taking on a leadership challenge is akin to entering the shop and feeling the heat of the forge, then vulnerably embracing the truth of our weaknesses, insecurities, and all we have yet to learn is akin to becoming the steel that is thrown into the fire.
Imagine yourself in this situation: You are leading a team of people, and your organization is in crisis. Maybe you are running out of money and people fear for their jobs. Maybe you lost a big donor or the attendance at church has been on a yearlong slide. Maybe it’s a cultural or global phenomenon like the pandemic of 2020. You are sitting in a meeting, and everybody is looking at you. And someone asks, “Well, what do you think we should do?” You feel your face flush and your mouth go dry. Your mind is racing. You desperately want to convey confidence, and you want everyone to trust you. You are so tempted to put on a good face and fake it. And you fear that the next words you need to say are going to change everything. You take a deep breath and say, “Friends. This is really a hard spot. And here is the honest answer: I don’t know what to do.”
How does that feel? If you are like me, even thinking about it makes you sick to your stomach. You can even picture the faces of your teammates staring at you in disbelief. You can hear, even in your mind, the muttering. But if you can stand there and say that, experiencing the vulnerability of that moment, you can begin to develop the strength to lead your group into the transformation that comes in these moments of adaptive leadership.
But this is hard. Really hard. It feels as if your strength and courage are melting in the fire of this moment.
THE DANGERS OF LEADING ALONE
This is why you need not only the vulnerability of the fire of the forge but also the security of relationships. Thick, heavy, relationships. An “anvil” of relationships. While the fire and the hammers are the first things you notice in a blacksmith shop, there is no question that no real work would get done without an anvil. A heavy, solid iron anvil has the heft and strength to hold the steel when it is both most molten and enduring the shaping blows of the hammers.
That’s what an anvil is: many relationships. Trusted relationships. Committed partners, loving friends and wise mentors—all three. While the cliché of the lone leader still haunts most of us, the truth is that we should never lead alone.
After years of leading, I have learned that my biggest mistakes and most discouraging moments were when I felt the heat of leadership alone. Oftentimes, that aloneness was my own doing. I chose to keep my own counsel, to solve the problem myself, to try to appear more competent than I was feeling, in the worst advice I was ever given, to “fake it ’til I make it.”
Today I know differently. For years now I have been committed to having a coach, a spiritual director or a therapist—and often more than one at the same time. I now believe that trying to lead alone is leadership malpractice. And I stepped down from a position in senior leadership in one of the most influential seminaries in the world in order to give myself full time to coaching, teaching, supporting and forming leaders in the midst of change.
If the crucible of leadership is a shop of leadership formation. If the fire of vulnerability is what prepares for the shaping, then it is the anvil of relationships that holds us when the hammering starts.
So, let me ask you, as you have entered the serious work of leadership:
• Are you feeling the heat?
• Are you able to honestly embrace this moment of learning, forming and tempering you into the leader you are meant to be?
• And even more important, how is your anvil? Do you have the partners, the mentors and the friends to hold you in this moment?
If you’re interested in pondering these kinds of questions, I invite you to join me in a Missio Alliance Learning Community called Tempered Resilience: A Guided Deep Dive For Leaders Facing Resistance. As we meet weekly for three weeks starting Wednesday (April 14th), we’ll do a deep dive into core practices for forming resilience in the face of external challenges and internal resistance that holds us back. If you are looking for support and encouragement to strengthen your own leadership journey, I welcome you to be a part of this experience.
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