The Crucible of Brokenness

August 2, 2020 John R. Hatfield 0 Comments

The Undesired Element That Molds Great Leaders.

“The things which hurt, instruct.”

Benjamin Franklin

In today’s leadership culture brokenness is not a quality leaders desire or pursue.  The most significant qualities touted of being a leader do not include brokenness.  In many minds, brokenness corresponds with weakness or failure, but not strength.  Every failure succeeds in some way. It provides the opportunity not only to be humble, but also to be gentle with the failure of others. “There is more power in sharing our weaknesses, than our strengths”, Brennan Manning. People need to hear and see leaders take responsibility for their mistakes. Honesty builds trust and admitting failure makes one more human and humane. “Beyond creating trust and collaborative atmosphere, communicating weakness also builds solidarity between followers and leaders” Goffee and Jones (2000).

As mentors, we can play a significant role relationally and developmentally if we are equipped in how to mentor leaders during this tumultuous season of their life. Deep qualities of character and wisdom, that can only emerge from going through not around suffering and pain molds an authentic, strong, wise, humble leader. “We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them” states Alan de Botton. People think failure is avoidable but experience reveals its not. “Mistakes are not permanent markers” John Maxwell (2000). When we take responsibility for the choices we make, we understand a little more about whom we are.  Brokenness involves a shattering, fragmentation, and crushing from a life-changing event. The damage or altering is like a fractured broken leg, a shattered vase, or a financial bankruptcy. It causes one to be overcome with grief and disappointment. Like the phoenix which burns itself and its nest, because it is the only way a new bird arises from the ashes, brokenness creates a new leader that will rise from the ashes into something more spectacular whose influence will far surpass who she use to be as a leader and person.

There are a multitude of reasons and places where brokenness occurs, AKA from dishonesty, self-centeredness, power welding, lies, arrogance, immature people skills, selfishness, stubbornness, un-willingness to be a team player, infatuation of self, addiction, sexual misconduct, unresolved anger issues, poor self-image, unwillingness to change, always having to be right, and abuse. Brokenness occurs in the family, business world, organization, marriage, work team, and in friendship. All intersect at one road, one journey that ultimately ends in tragedy. As mentors we must help broken leaders realize their life can change if they look at failure differently. As John Maxwell (2000) states, “You have the potential to overcome any problems, mistakes, or misfortunes. All you have to do is learn to fail forward.” And Bennis and Thomas (2000) state, “our recent research has led us to conclude that one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances. Put another way, the skills required conquering adversity and emerging stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.” Trained mentors will have significant impact as they join the journey with broken leaders.

Mentoring strategies for broken leaders:

A mentor is someone with knowledge and skill that empowers a learner through example, instruction, dialogue, affirmation, challenge and support, preferably in the context of an authentic relationship. As mentors it is imperative that we understand the different roles of mentoring and be able to match them to the specific mentoring need. There are five distinct mentor roles: professor, counselor, parent, coach, and peer.  Categorizing mentoring into these five roles provides simplicity, clarity, vision, and purpose. Defining and understanding roles such as: parent, counselor, professor, peer and coach help the mentor codify the role they must assume. 

Mentor strategies:

1) Listening and formulating insightful questions. 

“Listening is the process of receiving, constructing meaning from and responding to spoken and or non-verbal messages” (International Listening Association, 1996). There is great power in listening. Everyone needs to be heard and it communicates value, dignity, respect, and worth. It is a lost art and it takes practice to get good at it. Listening involves focused concentration. Nadig (2011) states, “Active or reflective listening is the single most useful and important listening skill. In active listening we are also genuinely interested in understanding what the other person is thinking, feeling, wanting, or what the message means and we are active in checking out our understanding before we respond without our own new message and reflect it back to the sender for verification. This verification or feedback process is what distinguishes active listening and makes it effective”. Mentors need to both understand the importance of active listening and develop it as a skill set when mentoring. In times of brokenness, the leader needs active listening, as well as, a safe, trusting environment to pour out his heart and soul and not be judged. The reason being, broken leaders are distraught and dealing with hurt, bitterness, pain, honesty, self-hatred, loathing, blame, anger, arrogance, confusion, and disgust. Many times the leader is confused and in a state of disillusionment, and part of the unraveling process is simply being able to communicate and for you the mentor to speak back to them what you heard. Nadig states, “effective communication exits between two people when the receiver interprets and understands the senders message in the same way the sender intended it”. Many times, during this time of talking, it does not mean they have come to a final conclusion (destination), it just means they need to communicate and are in process (journey). Your job is to listen and verify what you heard them say, not give advice, or draw conclusions, but to formulate insightful questions for their personal discovery to untangle confusing and complex issues.

2) Reflection and journaling

Reflection is paramount as a mentoring strategy and significantly beneficial as it gives insight through thinking and writing. Deep inner insight can pour up from the well of refection giving discernment and truth. David Kolb’s experiential learning theory addresses reflection as an aspect of experiential learning. David Kolb (1984) believes learning is a cycle. He has developed a four-stage model of learning, including reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, concrete experience, and active experimentation.    Donald Schon (2011) addresses reflection in professional practice in the role of reflection in counseling. Many times we believe lies and half-truths that always lead us down paths of destruction. Consistent, quiet times of journaling, and reflection help a leader identify these lies and half-truths they have believed and acted upon both personally and in the arena where they had responsibility to lead. Half-truths are tricky to uncover but the reflection time is well spent because of their destructive nature. As the mentor, your role is to help provide insightful reflection questions. “Journaling speaks to the psychology of learning through writing, enumerates the connections between writing and learning and explains why journal writing is a powerful learning tool, uniquely suited for professional thought and reflection” Yinger and Clark (1981). Journaling with the purpose of identifying key life lessons compounds writing and learning helping the leader identify and articulate truths and values they choose to embrace, as well as, identifying lies and half-truths and how they affected their unhealthy personhood and decision-making. Journaling helps the leader to re-frame the event, to rise above the mistake, and help create transformation. Re-framing their life journey assists the leader in identifying core values they want to live and embrace. Mentors help leaders integrate lessons from their brokenness. “Crucibles force leaders into deep self-reflection, where they examine their values, question their assumptions, and hone their judgment” Bennis and Thomas (2000). Mentors help leaders integrate lessons from their brokenness.

3) Affirmation, encouragement, and hope

“Every man is entitled to be valued by his best moments” Ralph Waldo Emerson. Leaders need your presence, shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart. You may be the only person standing with them as many will abandon, reject, condemn, judge, hate, and ostracize them, depending on what they did, causing their brokenness (The fact is people have been deeply hurt and even broken themselves because of what the leader has done). This doesn’t mean you defend what they did wrong. It means you stand with them during the process of restoration. “ Failure is the greatest opportunity I have to know who I really am” John Killinger. You choose to not give them what they deserve and to love them unconditionally. You accept them for who they are and not for who they should be. Being the support as they take steps (regardless of how small or big the step) of honesty, humility, and resolution. Alfred Alder (1870-1937) states, “That when we feel encouraged, we feel capable and appreciated and will generally act in a connected and cooperative way. When we are discouraged, we may act in unhealthy ways by competing, withdrawing, or giving up.” Alder a world-renowned philosopher and psychiatrist stressed the need to understand individuals within their social context. Affirmation is the statement or proposition that is declared to be true, a confirmation or ratification of the truth. And encouragement brings hope. Hope is the feeling that what is wanted can be had and that events will turn out for the best. Hope is epic to recovery, healing, and changing. As the mentor to broken leaders you must continue to speak and give pictures of where they are in the process providing the vision picture of their transformation into something of beauty. They must see that one day their deep character and maturity will be needed and valued and they will lead from a more prominent and powerful place. Sadly though, there will always be others who will never let a broken leader become something new after the burned ashes. According to Charles Snyder’s (2000) Hope theory, “hope is both a cognitive and affective element. There are three components associated with hope. 1) Having goal-oriented thoughts; 2) developing strategies to achieve goals; and 3) being motivated to expand effort to achieve goals.” An individual’s belief in their ability to realize these components determines the likelihood they will develop a sense of hope. Mentors need to help the broken leader develop strategies and goals for change using refection, journaling, listening, feedback verification, encouragement, affirmation, and support.  Hope helps give correct perspective to the leader in the midst of their personal and career devastation. We all need help with correct perspective and hope.

The fact is we will all encounter some issue that will introduce us to brokenness. Brokenness is an experience that ultimately changes a person, either into one who has assets or liabilities. Nietzsche states, “The measure of ourselves is how we transform pain or suffering into something worthwhile or meaningful in our lives”. Mentoring broken leaders into beauty and maturity is never quick or easy. The road is filled with lots of tears, yet lots of joy, and peace. The transformation of character is never cheap or easy but has a high price of suffering, truth, and pain that are the molding elements for greatness. We all know best who we really are by watching what we do rather than listening to what we say.  Like the pruning of grapevines, cutting out the dead vines and cutting back the good limbs at first seems and appears destructive, ultimately the pruning produces a stronger plant that bears more fruit.  This pruning is what must take place in the life of great leaders and mentors need to understand the value of the pruning process.

Failures need to be redefined as success. One problem we have is judging failures quickly and assigning a “lifetime label” to that person because of the failure. We must remember what Senator Sam Ervin Jr., said, “Defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out.” We need to view failure from this vantage point. We must help those we mentor to fail forward. “Experience is not what happens to you. Experience is what you do with what happens to you.” Aldous Huxley.

4) Truth discernment

Poet Lord Byron stated, “Adversity is the first path to truth.” Everybody has formative events in their lives both personally and professionally. Formative events significantly shape us and form us in how we see our world and those we lead. In 1902, Charles Horton Cooly created the concept of the Looking Glass Self, which explored how the identity is formed. Cooly stated,  “that a person’s self grows out of society’s interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others”. There is three components of the Looking Glass Self: we imagine how we appear to others, we image the judgment of that appearance, and we develop our self (identity) through the judgment of others. Mentors help broken leaders to have a correct view of which they are becoming and not view themselves from the past or judgment and condemnation they place upon themselves or others dispense on them.

Bennis and Thomas (2000) interviewed 40 top leaders in business and the public sector and found, “young and old were able to point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that had transformed them and had become the sources of their distinctive leadership abilities.” Mentors help them focus on their new self-identity and the changes they are making and keep them aligned and centered, moving toward true north as they reinvent themselves. “A crucible is, by definition, a transformative experience though which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of identity” Bennis and Thomas (2000). Mentors give truth and expose lies and half-truths as transformation occurs. Everybody has formative events in their lives both personally and professionally. Formative events significantly shape us and form us in how we see our world and those we lead.

One purpose of the mentor is to create an atmosphere of trusting supportive interaction (they matter) that can help the leader take steps for solving an issue or problem. The mentor has skills and gifts of listening; asking questions, emotional intelligence, acceptance, empathy, care, understanding, inclusiveness, affirmation, and discernment of when or if giving advice is appropriate.  James Long says, “One reason God created time was so that there would be a place to bury the failures of the past.” We must help broken leaders live life in the present and let the failures from the past be transformational not a death sentence. “No one needs to be held hostage from their mistakes and regardless of how dark it was, it need not color the present permanently”, John Maxwell (2000). Our past failures will either create a breakdown or breakthrough. We must be cognizant of this in our mentoring.

The fact is adversity lies at the heart of every success. It can either make us bitter or better. Ben Franklin said, “The things that hurt, instruct.” Our wisdom and maturity comes not from our successes but from our failures. Once a leader has passed through this dark period and been transformed, they have something to say they didn’t have before and people want to listen. The fact is we never really know who we are until we have been tested.

John R. Hatfield


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The Crucible of Brokenness was last modified: June 21st, 2021 by John R. Hatfield