COVID-19: A crucible for professional development

Sometimes crisis triggers the genius within. Bernard Kelvin Clive (Author)

By Dr Jan Anderson, Principal Consultant

High impact professional development for stronger more sustainable leadership through crises takes investment and time. In the current climate though, other priorities are swamping our energy and attention. 

Should we wait until later to focus on our own development, when things calm down and go back to ‘normal’? 

With COVID-19, we face an indefinite period of turbulence and heightened uncertainty.  We also can’t predict what will be waiting for us at the ‘end’ of all of this.  

If I were capsized at sea, I could wait until after I’d struggled to shore before learning to swim better. It would be easier to learn when I was well rested, with more time and space to think about my strokes and technique. However, my current labours would remain tougher, more exhausting, and more precarious meanwhile. 

For many of us, the COVID-19 crisis is a crucible. A ‘crucible’ is a time of extraordinary challenge and adversity. In leadership development, we often speak of crucible experiences and their importance in building strong leaders. Research has shown that the capacity to find meaning in adversity, to overcome it and to emerge even stronger and more committed, is a predictor of leadership capability. People with this capacity can also inspire great confidence, hope, loyalty, and hard work in others.

What do we need in order to find meaning from COVID-19 crucibles, to overcome adversity and to emerge stronger for it….all the while helping others do the same?

Certainly, there are plenty of commentators out there deciding for us, and telling us what we need. People can tell us how to craft a vision, increase our tech know-how, practise mindfulness, eat a well-balanced diet, get regular exercise, maintain meaningful connections with our loved ones and employees in a remote working environment, have a financial plan, take a glass half full mentality, keep a gratitude diary…the list goes on.   

But what about building the capacity to figure out for ourselves what is needed in situations that are unique to us, in concert with others and in connection with our own sense of self, purpose and values? This is how targeted, deliberate development through crucibles works.  It’s about learning to think in more powerful ways that help us make sense of the messiness and discord of our own challenges, and then consciously turning that sense-making to advantage.    

In leadership development, we call this kind of work ‘vertical development’, as opposed to ‘horizontal development’. Horizontal development refers to the adding of more knowledge, skills, and competencies. It is about what you know. Vertical development refers to advancement in a person’s thinking capability. It is about enriching how you think, who you are to yourself and others, and the new breadth of (more and less helpful) approaches this may allow you to choose from in any given situation.

For example, earlier in my career I was hired into a senior role deliberately created to lead new ways of working, which required significant culture change in an organisation. Deep culture change like this, by its very nature, disrupts underlying systems of working, power, decision-making, expertise, and competence (just like COVID-19 is doing right now). Initially, my work was continually met with what felt to me like an unpredictable mix of engagement and resistance – two steps forward, one step back. The constant ‘heat’ and dissonance tested my resolve, felt painfully personal at times, and drained my energy. 

That’s when I decided to hire an executive coach to help me make more skilful choices about both my perceptions of situations, and my resultant actions.

For me, there were numerous lessons. One key issue my coach and I identified was a fusion for me between my practices of stakeholder engagement and values around consensus and harmony, which could be helpful in some situations but could also lead to quagmires in decision-making elsewhere. 

Part of vertical development is coming to understand that ‘what got me here, won’t get me there’ as we tackle new challenges and uncertainties through our lives and careers. My coach worked with me to re-conceptualise the productive value of conflict, to practise deliberately creating space for difference, and to overtly build my own and others’ skills in generating enough transparent, robust dissonance to progress some of the tougher aspects of negotiating culture change.   

Broadening my thinking and perspectives like this gave me an increased diversity of choices and ways to approach situations.  This ultimately produced greater results in terms of culture change, stakeholder buy-in and my own wellbeing and performance.  

Vertical development is inherently tailored to you, your situations and your strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots, because you have such a central role in it. What’s more, by doing it you learn how to consciously accelerate your own growth and development into the future, continually using your own experiences as a practice lab for stronger performance.

There are numerous ways to build your leadership capacity through COVID-19 adversity, ambiguity and change. The most powerful include:

  • engaging a skilled executive coach to help you make sense of your biggest challenges and deliberately use them to grow yourself and others

  • choosing an appropriate (and appropriately challenging) leadership development program that supports you to do this with peers

  •  finding a mentor or trusted sounding board who can help you unpack your experiences and implement lessons learned

Contact me or any of my colleagues at People Measures if you would like to find out more.

Bennis, W., and Thomas, R.J. (2002) Crucibles of Leadership. Harvard Business Review. September 2002.   

Petrie, N. (2015) Vertical Leadership Development–Part 1 Developing Leaders for a Complex World. Available online at