Authentic Leadership: The Crucible and the Journey from “I” to “We”

In my previous article, I said that authentic leadership involves a journey from “I” to “we” which is often triggered by a “crucible” experience. This idea is captured in the research of George and Sims, recorded in their book True North, but it is also happens to be my own experience. I finished that post by asking a number of questions which I plan to answer in this one.

• Why does authenticity result in less “me” and more “us”?

• Why does the journey from “I” to “we” affect leaders and those they lead in the way it does?

• Why is a crucible experience (suffering) often the point of departure for the leadership journey from “I” from “we”?

Why does authenticity result in less “me” and more “us”?

Authenticity means I am being who I really am and being who I really am is an unconscious competence. It doesn’t require any effort. It means in life and leadership I am not thinking about me or diverting any energy into being me I am just being who I really am, me! So the more authentic I become the less I need to focus on me and the more available I can be for others. My leadership is not about me but about those I lead and I am able to give more of my attention to the one in front of me. Listening to you becomes easy because in the process of listening to you I am not thinking about me. As I make myself fully available to you, give you my full attention and fully listen to you, “me” becomes “us”. This is one of the most powerful things a leader can do. Authentic leaders do it best.

Why does this journey affect leaders and those they lead in the way it does?

The short answer is because I believe all of us are created to be authentic in our being and to desire authenticity in our relationships. This explains why authentic leadership is attractional. Authentic leaders draw people to them, they don’t have to demand people follow them. Authenticity draws, authority demands.

Leaders and organisations spend a lot of time, money and effort on marketing designed to attract followers. Marketing is no substitute for authenticity, it is much less effective and much more expensive.

The tragedy is that for many and often complex reasons we end up rejecting who we really are in favour of an imposter on the inside and a pretender on the outside. We struggle with a crisis of identity not knowing who we really are and pretending to be someone we are not. For leaders this is a massive deal. Pretending to be someone you are not is hard work. Leading whilst not being yourself is deadly. It’s a recipe for burn out.

Why is suffering often the point of departure for the leadership journey from “I” from “we”?

Suffering strips away the pretender on the outside and evicts the imposter on the inside. This explains why some of the most authentic people we know are people who have suffered the most. I’m not suggesting we put ourselves in the way of suffering but I am suggesting that the crucible is a catalyst for personal transformation and the point of departure for the journey from “I” to “we” that characterises authentic leadership.

I’ll finish with a quote from Warren G Bennis and Robert J Thomas who sums things up nicely.

For the leaders we interviewed, the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, question their assumptions, hone their judgment. And, invariably, they emerged from the crucible stronger and more sure of themselves and their purpose—changed in some fundamental way.
Leadership crucibles can take many forms. Some are violent, life-threatening events. Others are more prosaic episodes of self-doubt. But whatever the crucible’s nature, the people we spoke with were able to create a narrative around it, a story of how they were challenged, met the challenge, and became better leaders. As we studied these stories, we found that they not only told us how individual leaders are shaped but also pointed to some characteristics that seem common to all leaders—characteristics that were formed, or at least exposed, in the crucible.

Crucibles of Leadership - Harvard Business Review, by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas


Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant