In April, Prince Harry shared the poignant story of his near-breakdown over his mother Diana’s death. For 20 years he attempted to bury his grief, using honourable military service and wild partying to avoid thinking about his loss.
But that only led him astray. While the public tried to escape the searing memories, Prince Harry enlisted in the British Army, where he served for 10 years, including two tours in Afghanistan.
He also embarrassed the royal family with his well-publicised social life that centred on drinking, partying, and a viral Las Vegas binger that included nude photos of the prince.
Thanks to some intervention from Prince William, he sought professional counselling and is now on the road to recovery. Like others who experience crucibles, Prince Harry tried to avoid thinking about his loss – but his active mind kept bringing it back all the time.
His story reminds us all to cope with our crucibles, fully process grief to make sense of it before turning it into a point for personal growth.
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Needless to say, Prince Harry is not alone. After the publication of True North in 2007, I received a moving letter from Pedro Algorta, one of 16 survivors of the airplane crash in the Andes Mountains chronicled by Piers Paul Read in his book and movie, Alive.
Algorta and his colleagues spent 70 days in the mountains struggling to stay alive without food or water. For 35 years, Algorta buried his crucible.
At Stanford Business School, he didn’t tell anyone about his ordeal. But the experiences kept coming back. By processing them, he discovered his True North and embarked on a new career of sharing his story and helping others grow from their crucibles.
Algorta cites three ways to deal with his severe trials:
1. Be the victim by living your life looking backward, with anger and blame about what happened to you.
2. Live your life as if nothing happened, while the memories and pain remain buried inside you.
3. Use the event to transform your wound into a pearl.
The sad thing about being the victim is you never feel you can trust others and lead a normal life.
Burying your crucible doesn’t work either, as it will constantly resurface, often in the least appropriate ways.
Reframing the event to turn its pain into a growth experience can show you the way to your life’s purpose, and enable you to use your hardships to help others.
Harvard student Taylor Carol was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 11 and was told he had only two weeks to live.
He survived a horrendous series of treatments, and missed four years of education. Told by a guidance counsellor he should skip high school and instead gain a graduate equivalent degree, he insisted he wanted to attend Harvard.
Now 21 years old, he graduated from Harvard.
Asked how his battle with terminal cancer affected him, he said, “After beating cancer, I resolved to use my singing, my words, and every ounce of my life force to glorify God.
I aspire to change the world with my words and voice by pursuing my career as a singer-songwriter.”
We all have our crucibles – at least one struggle in life illustrated by the metaphor of a hot container. Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former chair and CEO of hospitality conglomerate Carlson, still vividly recalls learning the news of her daughter’s death.
My husband and I heard one morning that our beautiful 19-year-old Juliet had been killed in an automobile accident.
Nelson used the trauma of her daughter’s death to rethink what her life and leadership were about.
That’s the most profound test my husband and I ever had of our faith and our personal relationship. I lost my faith at the time and felt angry with God, but God didn’t abandon me and didn’t let me go.
I discovered how valuable every day and each person are.
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We vowed to make meaningful whatever time we had left so the time Juliet didn’t have would be well spent, and to use every opportunity to give back and make life better for people. We are all human beings with one short time on earth.
By reframing this tragedy with a newfound sense of mission, she transformed her leadership into building strong institutions that serve others and address difficult issues facing society.
She concludes, “Business well run is a force for good in the world.”
My own early crucible was less dramatic, but it played a formative role in my life. When I was 10, my father told me he wanted me to become the leader he had failed to be.
I bought into this expectation and joined numerous organisations. I ran for office seven times in high school and college, and lost all seven.
Seeing myself as a loser, I was crushed when some seniors at Georgia Tech told me, “Bill, no one is ever going to want to work with you, much less be led by you, because you are moving so fast you never take time for other people.”
Their feedback enabled me to realise I was seeking titles to gain people’s esteem rather than helping other people.
After taking time for self-reflection and gaining honest feedback, I was able to change my relationships and help other people and later was selected for many leadership roles in college and graduate school.
Understanding yourself at a deeper level requires the courage to face life’s difficulties and discover your True North.
Knowing that gives you the courage to navigate successfully life’s greatest challenges.
Don’t bury your crucible. Face it head on. See what you can learn from it and let it guide you to a more fulfilling life.
Bill is a professor at the Harvard Business School where he has taught leadership since 2004. He is the author of four best-selling books: 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, True North, Finding Your True North, and Authentic Leadership, as well True North Groups. To engage with him, e-mail us at email@example.com
Reposted with permission on Leaderonomics.com