Leadership: Crucibles, Consolidation and the Power of a Journal

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I wasn’t a “necessity entrepreneur,” but I started my business after I’d been fired from three previous jobs. I knew I could produce results. I thought that I might be the only boss who wouldn’t fire me. What followed was one of the most intense periods in my life.

My first year in business was a deep dive into learning. I set to work learning several things I knew I had to learn to make my business successful. Like most entrepreneurs, I also discovered several things that I didn’t know I didn’t know and set about learning them, too. After about a year, things slowed down a bit and I had some time to reflect on what I’d learned.

That’s how it’s been for most of my life. There have been periods of intense effort where I had to master new skills and learn new lessons. And between them, there were quieter times where my days were more routine.

Crucibles and Leadership Growth

Robert Thomas and Warren Bennis coined the term “crucible.” Here’s how Thomas defined it in his book:

“A crucible is not the same as a life stage or transition, like moving from adolescence to adulthood or from midlife to retirement. Life stages can be stressful, even tumultuous; but, unlike crucibles, they tend to be gradual, reasonably predictable, and patterned. Crucibles are more like trials or tests that corner individuals and force them to answer questions about who they are and what is really important to them.”

Every successful leader I’ve known has had crucible experiences. They’re tough assignments, business or natural emergences, a horrid boss, pretty much anything that tests the leader and forces him or her to grow. That’s great, but here’s the problem.

When you are in the midst of an intense learning period in your life, you are gathering in impressions and experiences by the armload. When you’re in the middle of a crucible experience, you’re concentrating on keeping your head above water and making a little progress.

You will learn the most if you can reflect on all the experiences and how you felt. But by the times things slow down enough for you to do that, you’ve internalized all your experiences and you can’t remember them well enough to squeeze all the possible value from them.

A Journal Can Be Your Link Between Experience and Learning

I wasn’t keeping a journal during that hectic first year, so I didn’t know what I was missing. One day, though, I was talking about trying to remember some lessons from that year and Hank Rossi, an older consultant that I worked with, suggested that I keep a journal. “That way,” he said, “you’ll be able to go back and see how you felt and what you thought. You’ll learn a lot more that way.”

Hank was right about that, like so many other things. The day he gave me that advice, I went out and bought a bound book full of blank pages to keep my journal in. Since that day, over 30 years ago, I have been a dedicated and disciplined journal writer. Here’s how I do it.

Writing in My Journal Every Day

Over the years, I’ve used all kinds of bound books, loose leaf pages, and computer files to keep my journal. Today, I use a simple Word file. The key is not what medium you use, it’s taking the time every day to make your notes.

During the day, I make notes on my digital voice recorder about things I want to recall that night. That’s my way of assuring that I don’t ever forget to write about something important. Then, every night I sit down and write about three things.

  • What I did, and what happened
  • How I think and feel about it
  • Ideas for doing better

There’s no one right way to keep a journal, but this is what works for me. Other people use different systems. Writing your simple notes every day is crucial because that’s the only way you can have something worthwhile to review. Writing in your journal must become habit.

Review and Reflection is Where the Learning Happens

Writing about your experience and thoughts is helpful, but the most important benefits come when you also develop the habit of review and reflection.

Every week, on Saturday for me, I take some time to review my journal and my business results. I look at how I’ve done on my key business measurements. I review what progress I’ve made on my projects. I make some notes on the why the results were the way they were. Finally, I add reflections and ideas. Some weeks there’s a lot, but most weeks there’s not much. The cumulative effect is greater than the effect of any single week.

Every quarter, I set aside part of a day to review my journal and notes from the previous quarter and make my plans for the quarter to come. I’ve learned that if I do a good job of the daily notes and the weekly recaps, I don’t need more than a couple of hours once a quarter to analyze the recent past and set reasonable goals for the coming quarter. Your review and reflection must become a habit, too.

The Benefits of Habitual Journaling

Even in the most hectic times, if you can squeeze out 10-15 minutes a day to write in your journal and record what’s happening and what you think and feel about it, you have a bridge between immersive learning experiences and the reflection that helps you get the most value from them. If you make journaling a habit, you’re more likely to do it during those hectic, demanding times. And, it’s precisely those times where you have the kind of learning you want to capture for later reflection.

Bottom Line

Keeping a leadership journal is the best way I know to squeeze the maximum amount of learning out of your experience. Couple the journaling habit with the habit of reflection and you’ll learn more than you ever thought possible.

For Further Reading

Crucibles: How to Learn from Experience and Become a Great Leader by Robert Thomas

Geeks and Geezers by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas

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