Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Crucible: Reflections on Life, Leadership and Mormon Missions

Continuing To Reap Success Series, No. 1.

Sometime ago I read a fascinating book called Leading for a Lifetime, by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas.  They conducted two hour video-taped interviews with business leaders under the age of thirty-two and a second set over seventy.  They were testing a theory about the influence of the time period in which leaders grow up.  To their surprise they discovered that four qualities were cross-generational and central to every leader–something they had not supposed. I’m not going to list those qualities now, to avoid being sidetracked from the purpose of this article and to encourage you to read the book yourself.

However, one of the fascinating things they found was that each leader had undergone a “heroic struggle of some sort” and overcame a series of unique obstacles in the course of becoming a leader.  They called these “defining moments” in the lives of these leaders. They also gave it a more dramatic name:  “The Crucible.”   In a “Foreword” to the book, David Gergen, advisor to several presidents from both sides of the isle, tells of Harry Truman, without a college education, becoming a leader during World War I.  Author David McCullough said the war was Truman’s “crucible.” Gergen goes on to discuss the importance of the crucible in preparing leaders.  He says:
“At least one national organization has formally embraced the idea of a crucible as a training ground for future leaders–and has found that it works.  In the mid-1990s, with the economy booming and labor markets tight, the U.S. military services were struggling to meet their enlistment goals.  The Army, Navy, and Air force decided to make their services more appealing by improving living conditions, allowing recruits more time with their families, and the like.  The Marine Corps went the other way: It toughened up. General Charles Krulak, the Commandant, introduced ‘The Crucible’ to Marine training–an incredibly grueling fifty-four straight hours of live fire exercises, long marches, and deep deprivation at the end of basic training. After climbing the final hill in this test, recruits are presented with the eagle, globe, and anchor emblem.  And with that, finally, they are Marines. Potential recruits rallied to the idea and the corps, alone among the services, saw its enlistment shoot up." [pp. xxvi-xxvii.]
Gergen went on to ask some searching questions.  “Why, for example, do some people find times of testing and adversity a great source of strength while others become discouraged and shrivel up?  If you are running an organization, how can you spot those who will succeed and those who will fail when trials come?  As a mentor or teacher, how can you help someone prepare for difficulties that may lie ahead?  What counsel can you offer?” [p. xxvii.]  He further noted that 63% of British Prime Ministers between Wellington and Chamberlain suffered parental loss at a young age.  This “crucible” forged and steeled them.  But, Gergen also notes that “two other groups, juvenile delinquents and depressive or suicidal psychiatric patients, show orphanhood rates similar to those of the eminent public figures. In other words, some rise from their crucible but others certainly fall.  Why?” [p. xxvii.]

All of this stimulated my interest in reading further, but it also set me to thinking about two things relating to the Gospel.  First, we know that life is a test to see if we will live righteously and faithfully while out of God’s presence and prove our desire and worthiness to return to his presence.  Life itself is a “crucible” to test us all.  At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the parable of “The Wise and Foolish Builder.” The wise man built his home on a foundation of rock the foolish man on sand.  The rock was the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The common element in both men’s experiences was that “the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon” their homes (Mt. 7:25, 27).  Some rise and some fall but the issue isn’t the nature of the crucible, it is our preparation for and response to it.  

It also led to a second reflection.  Gergen notes that in modern times the crucible of the draft and mandatory military service was a “ladder up” of leadership development which has largely disappeared from American life.  “It is worth asking, he writes, “what, if anything, has taken its place as a crucible.”  And I ask, what about leaders in the Church?  The tests of life often come late in the game.  Does the Lord have a crucible that will come early enough that it can be a “defining moment” to set men and women on the path of leadership? 

At the end of his “Foreword” Gergen reflects on possible solutions in America which also gave me insight into the Lord's program as well:
“Reading this excellent book, I couldn’t help but wonder how America could provide more inspiring opportunities for the potential leaders of the next generation, both men and women.  Is national service an answer?  Wouldn’t it help if we created a national culture in which the young were expected to give at least a year back to the country.  Wouldn’t many of them find their own crucible?” [p. xxix.]
You have probably already figured out where I’m going with this.  But it strikes me that the Lord has provided a crucible within his Church to test, forge and steel future leaders.  He already knows this true principle, and he has created a “church culture”–an international culture if you will–to provide leaders not only for his Church, but for the nations and countries of the world.  It is called a full-time mission.  I did not realize all of this when I used to tell missionaries in the California Roseville Mission their mission would strip them down to their very core and test them like nothing else had ever tested them.  Many said “amen”. Even then, without seeing these things as clearly as now, we used to discuss why this was the case, and we talked in terms of how missions were teaching missionaries about themselves, were forging, strengthening, and preparing them for the future.  The prophet Jacob taught, “Nevertheless, the Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescension unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things.”  (Jac. 4:7) Our missions were a test, a crucible, and a sieve that sorted and screened each of us.  Wherever we started from, our missions moved each of us to a greater understanding of ourselves, life and the gospel.  And for nearly all, it was a great preparation for life and for future service in the Lord’s kingdom.  

At this point it is important to say something to those of you who may look back and say that the crucible got the best of you.  Well, it did that to all of us in some ways at some times. There was more than one test in my first mission which I failed, or at least did not measure up to as I should have. I learned many things about myself that I did not like. Believe it or not, I dreamed about several of them more than once after I came home. But it is a little bit like how you remember the correct answers to the questions on the test which you answered wrong.  Many of the best lessons and insights to come out of my first mission were the result of my failures, mistakes, and yes, sins. But the important thing for all of us is that we use those things as opportunities to repent, change, improve, and grow.  I resolved to never again make some of the mistakes that caused me nightmares. When I was called as a student ward bishop the first time, I knew it was going to demand an effort from me that was akin to that required in the mission field. I decided from day one that I would not hold back anything, so when it was over I would not suffer from the guilt which came from the mistakes I made on my mission. As a result, I finished those three years with a sense of elation, completion, satisfaction, and contentment. Sure I made mistakes, but not the old ones.  n addition, I have continued to learn from my mistakes and sins associated with my leadership positions in the Church. I continued to learn about myself as a Mission President.  I made some mistakes and have lived to regret them. I won’t have the privilege of being a mission president again–at least in this life–but I have resolved not to repeat the mistakes that I am aware of which I made in California. If you suffer from regret or guilt, I hope you will turn those mistakes and failures into great lessons and “defining moments” through which you may continue to change, improve, and grow. America, this Church, and the world need your leadership.

Let's think together again, soon.


  1. Thank you for this. I loved reading it. It's so interesting about "defining moments." I've had several. It gives me great hope when I think I can learn from my mistakes and use them for growth and change.

    1. Thanks Nan. I appreciate your kind words and encouragement to keep at this in hopes it may be of some interest to others.

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  3. Very well said. The last paragraph was an especially good addition. I don't know who said it but "every saint has a past and every sinner has a future."

    1. Thank you my friend. You captured the message of that paragraph in one sentence. Bravo!