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How To Identify Defining Leadership Moments

And why they matter.

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A mere three-hundred billion – that’s billion with a ‘b’ – years ago and only 100 miles or so below the surface of the Earth’s upper mantle, things got hot.

And the weight of the overlying rock bearing down created immense pressure, so much pressure, in fact, that the combination of high temperature and high pressure caused molten lamproite and magma to expand rapidly, which then caused the magma to erupt, which then forced it to the Earth’s surface, as well as some rocks. 

In these rocks? Diamonds.

That’s right. With only 1,650-2,370°F and just 45 to 60 kilobars – or around 50,000 times that of atmospheric pressure at the Earth’s surface – we get diamonds.

Sounds simple enough, right?

The process of creating a diamond seems to defy every odd in order to create something so precious. So much time. So many extenuating circumstances. So much heat and pressure. Their existence is nothing short of a geological miracle.

And so it is with leadership. But not just any leadership. Not OK leadership. Not good leadership. 

Great leadership. 

Because if you’re a leader, you know all those same transformative elements all too well: time, circumstance, proverbial heat and immense pressure. 

Oh, the pressure.

But it’s in those elements where great leaders are forged. It’s in those moments – those defining leadership moments – that separate the rocks from the diamonds. 

So how do you know if a moment is your ‘molten-lamproite-and-magma-expansion-and-eruption’ moment? How do you know if a moment is your defining moment?

That Which Doesn’t Break You

Defining moments can help us become authentic leaders and harness what Harvard Business School Professor Bill George calls a leader’s True North

George explains that True North acts a leader’s internal compass as they strive to become an authentic leader, and is centered on five key areas:

  • Knowing your authentic self
  • Defining your values and leadership principles
  • Understanding your motivations
  • Building your support team
  • Staying grounded by integrating all aspects of your life

To appreciate this in context, think about a major milestone in your life – challenges, transitions, major influences and pivotal events – with honest self-reflection to identify these pivotal moments. 

As it is explained, how you approached that particular challenge matters less than how deeply you choose to dig in to allow it to evolve you and (re-)shape how you define yourself today.

In her book with Wharton Professor of Psychology Adam Grant, ‘Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resistance And Finding Joy,’ Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg reflected on the sudden loss of her husband in 2015 – and how that reshaped the meaning in her life. 

About it, she said, “We plant the seeds of resilience in the ways we process negative events. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that three P’s can stunt recovery: (1) Personalization—the belief that we are at fault; (2) Pervasiveness—the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life; and (3) Permanence—the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever.”

As she grappled with her profound grief, Sandberg originally believed resilience was a fixed, finite capacity to endure pain. 

Grant, however, explained that a person has no fixed amount of resilience, so the question instead became: How can someone become more resilient? 

Resilience, as it turns out, is like a muscle and can be strengthened. 

Making Yourself Stronger

Life, as we all know well by now, isn’t perfect. And as leaders, we know this well, too.

Just being alive is a known-and-assumed risk. Things can – and will – go wrong. 

But even with our years of experience living an imperfect life, we are still left reeling from that which we should, by now, have come to expect: challenges, obstacles, the unexpected.

These unexpected moments, although wrapped in pain and frustration and disappointment, present incredible opportunities. Through the immense pressure, we are afforded the opportunity to … 

  • Take action and change 
  • Rise to the occasion
  • Reveal our true values and purpose
  • Identify the path we’re meant to follow 
  • Discover our true strength and ability to lead despite the circumstances 

And viewing these moments through the lens of opportunity – choosing to instead view it as something that has happened for you and not to you – precipitates the most important step: your transformation.

Simply put: How we choose to react and respond to a defining moment proves paramount.

Ask yourself: 

  • What’s the bigger picture here?
  • What am I reacting to?
  • What does this situation mean to me?
  • What would be the best thing for me to do?
  • If this were happening to my best friend, what advice would I give them?

Lens, changed. Opportunity, presented. Growth, inevitable. 

Mind(set) Over Matter

Dr. Frances Hesselbein, former Girl Scout CEO and Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, said it best: 

“Leadership is not a matter of how to do, but rather a matter of how to be.” 

As leaders, we can catalog every defining moment as a touchstone to guide and inform our leadership evolution.

These defining leadership moments should serve as an enduring illustration of who you aspire to be, rather than what you aspire to do. And that mindset is all that stands between you and your next diamond-in-the-rough. 

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