The Crucible of Change

It was one of my Dad’s favorite sayings. It was widely attributed to President Harry Truman and was the kind of no-nonsense saying that my father, a wrestling coach who grew up in Alaska, relished in.

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” he would say, again and again, conjuring up old Harry, anytime someone complained about the pressures and stressors that you took on if you took the helm of leading anything.

A project at work? Captain of a team? Taking on city hall? Trying to start a new business? Becoming pastor of a congregation? What my Dad and President Truman both would want any would-be leader to know is that taking the baton would mean every eye—and every opinion—of the orchestra would be fixed on you.

Are you up for it? Or would you prefer to go back to playing second violin?

Amongst leaders and the scholars that study them, the heat of the kitchen is not just something that the Executive Chef endures, it is the very thing that makes the leader. The challenges of leadership, the crises that inevitably come, and the stress and trials that are the everyday occurrence of the person with the esteemed title, corner office, and heavy furniture are the very crucible that shapes the character, the identity, and the capacity of a leader.

The heat of the kitchen is what makes the chef. Leaders are formed in leading.

This is why leadership is so hard. Leaders aren’t formed for the task until they are thrust into the middle of it. You can read all the books, and attend all the seminars, take the classes, and even get a “master’s degree” in leadership and the truth of the matter is that you are no readier to lead than playing a flight simulation game on your kid’s Xbox prepares you to fly a Boeing Dreamliner. You can preach so well that a congregation will call you to be “lead pastor” and the truth is that you still won’t be ready. The moment you take the helm as leader—you are a beginner all over again. Star player doesn’t often translate into great coach. The uber-gifted church staffer doesn’t necessarily become the next visionary senior pastor.

And this is even more true when a leader—even an experienced leader—must take up the challenge of organizational change in a rapidly changing, disrupted world.

For those of us whose call to leadership is in churches, it’s challenging enough to be the pastor of a congregation with all of its diversity of opinions, backgrounds, generations and preferences in ordinary times. But leading a congregation of people to be a faithful community fulfilling the mission of God in a time of immense cultural change has been a challenge that many of us were not prepared for by our seminary degrees and internships. Add to that the challenges of an unprecedented global pandemic, economic recession, and wide-scale protests addressing centuries of racial injustice and most leaders are just hoping to hang on, let alone lead through. As one pastor told me, “The question I find myself asking is not ‘Can I learn the skills I need to lead change?’ but rather ‘Can I survive it?’”

So, if taking on the call of leadership is the very crucible for shaping leaders, then what is needed to become a leader with the resilience to lead congregational and organizational change in a rapidly changing, completely disrupted world? If the only thing constant about change is that it is speeding up, then how do we develop the capacity to guide our congregations through the dizzying set of decisions that come our way every day (and the wildly diverse opinions of our people that demand often contradictory directions!)

In research and interviews conducted on leaders who were called into action to lead organizational change in moments of disruption and crises, what becomes immediately clear is that the heat of the kitchen is still not hot enough. Leaders who want to develop the tempering; that is the combination of strength and flexibility, conviction and humility, empathy and tenacity—the resilience to lead a people through disruption are those who allow themselves to go from the heat of the kitchen, into the fire itself.

That fire, like the red blaze of a forge that can make steel malleable for the blacksmith who is making a tempered chisel, is the heat of self-reflection. Vulnerable self-reflection.

If leaders are formed in leading, strength is forged in self-reflection.

Honest, self-aware, vulnerable, even Spirit-inspired reflection is the critical element that must be present in the life of the leader for the actual shaping, forming and tempering can begin. In the oft-repeated words attributed to educator John Dewey, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn by reflecting on experience.”

To enter the forge of leadership is go deeper than taking up the post and job description of leading; it is to accept that the most foundational activity for a leader is regular, vulnerable self-reflection. This is the humbling process of allowing the Spirit, our circumstances, the leadership challenges we face, and especially the failures we experience to grow us in vulnerability and self-awareness. As rabbi and psychologist Edwin Friedman wrote, leaders must have a “willingness to be exposed and vulnerable.”

Exposed and vulnerable. “Search me, O God, and know my heart,” the King who too often fell into tragic prideful, denial would pray. “See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me” he would ask in his best moments of leading.

Exposed and vulnerable while leading. To come honestly before God, to look yourself in the mirror with a compassionate and courageous eye, to stand before your people and lead them courageously and honestly, transparently and humbly, with conviction and in collaboration until both leader and the people are both formed into what is needed to face the challenges at hand–

That is the fire that transforms. Not just the heat of the kitchen, but the inferno of the chef’s oven—and the blacksmith’s forge. The fire of regular, honest, humble, vulnerable self-reflection.

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Tod Bolsinger
Tod Bolsinger

Tod Bolsinger is a speaker, executive coach, former pastor and author who serves as associate professor of leadership formation and senior fellow for the De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of Canoeing the Mountains and the forthcoming title Tempered Resilience (both IVP).