A View Inside a (My) Crucible Moment

By Kevin Huinink  |  April 11th

Eight months ago, I agreed to write an article on the theme of ‘Crucible Moments’ in the life of a leader. A crucible moment is defined by Carolyn Njogu as “a place of testing… Crucible moments are times in our lives when we experience circumstances that forever transform us.” When I signed up to write this article, I knew that this current school year would provide a unique challenge, and truthfully, I thought I would be in a space to reflect back on my own ‘crucible moment’ as a leader by now. As it turns out, I’m still in the middle of that challenge. It’s the kind of experience that, as a leader, you know will provide stories and wisdom in hindsight regardless of the outcome, but in the moment, you need to continue to press on through. What follows is perhaps as much encouraging self-talk at an ‘in-the-moment’ pause as it is a collective call for all of us to consider some expert input.

I reached out to Tod Bolsinger, who is a speaker, consultant, executive coach, former pastor, and author who serves as associate professor of leadership formation and senior fellow for the De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of Canoeing the Mountains and Tempered Resilience. I knew that Tod would be joining us at this year’s Edvance Spring Leadership Conference, "Leadership in a Changing World," so it seemed appropriate that I take a sneak peek at some of the content for the day and use the conference to help inform my current challenge.

As I review the last few years of leadership, it is obvious that we are working in a rapidly disrupted world. While there are similarities, 2023 has a very different landscape than 2018. The world has had to adapt to new realities. I had hoped that post-pandemic, we would be able to collectively let out a sigh of relief and get back to work the way we always have. And yet, Bolsinger’s leadership metaphor of Lewis and Clark encountering the Rocky Mountains as they were paddling Westward rings true. We are facing a new reality. While some of us would like to dig in and simply paddle harder (the way we’ve always done before), new realities call for us to adapt and do things differently.

As Bolsinger reviewed this, he reminded me of Max Depree’s decades-old advice: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” As my current challenge is one rooted in a larger and more diverse community, he also helpfully reminded me that while academics and educators love to have conversations, most people don’t, and that reframing the challenge would be best done as a ‘problem that we’re working on.’

Together, in the face of the problem, there are three important items that we as a community need to acknowledge and name or define:

  1. What is the common ground that we committed to holding on to? What are those shared values with which we started? What do we all ascribe to as important and with which we agree?
  2. What are the things with which we have divergent convictions? What problem(s) do we face? Sometimes this can be difficult. Identifying that we have differences is painful in a community that has worked together for a long time. Clearly articulating them is important, though, toward understanding them. As Bolsinger often says, “If we can’t name it, we can’t navigate it.”
  3. How can our shared values show us a way through the problem at hand? Defaulting back to the way we’ve always done things won’t solve the problem in a very different world. Do our divergent convictions keep us from living into our shared values, or do our shared values provide a new way through?

In my school community’s case, we’re in the middle of exactly this, and it’s difficult. If I were to extend the Rocky Mountain metaphor, some are calling to paddle harder, others are simply looking at the mountain as impassable, and in the various positions of opinion, there is plenty of frustration and even suggestions of going it alone without the others in our ‘expedition.’ It’s clear that there is a mountain in the way, and that there is anxiety about how we will be able to move forward.

Bolsinger had two final bits for me to chew on: “When you don't have best practice to guide you forward, you need to be prepared to ask better questions.” Asking better questions has come in the form of seeking professional guidance from people who are well-versed in divergent convictions. The Colossian Forum has proven to be a welcome coach along the way. We have committed to “transform [this] cultural conflict into opportunities for spiritual growth and witness so that our Christian community will act Christian, especially in the face of conflict.” Taking the time to listen properly, to lean into the conflict, and to ask better questions will be our leadership’s attempt to engage our community in a way forward, ‘over the mountains.’

The final bit from Bolsinger was that he reminded me that “not everyone will want to come along.” I think that this is the toughest pill for me to swallow. I’m an educator and a leader who desires to see everyone in agreement and committed to continuing on the journey. I’m inspired by my school’s mission and vision. As Lewis and Clark were motivated to push West, I’m motivated to continue the vision of Christian education forward in a new time and reality even if, and especially if, we have to adapt to do so.

I want to offer one final thought before I close this reflection on the metaphor. It’s not lost on me that Lewis and Clark were part of a colonialist push toward claiming land. In my first attempt at reading Bolsinger’s ‘Canoeing the Mountains,’ I did so alongside the backdrop of the discovery of unmarked Indigenous graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in BC, and I wasn’t able to stomach a continued reading of the book. A year later, much to my delight, after a friend encouraged me to continue reading, I discovered that Bolsinger highlighted the kindness, wisdom, ingenuity, and help of the pregnant Indigenous woman Sacagawea as the true hero of the expedition. It was Sacagawea who provided the adaptations that the expedition needed to continue its journey through the mountains. A completely different way of travel was needed, and it came from whom they would have seen as an unlikely source.

Max Depree’s advice to leaders to define reality didn’t stop there. His full thoughts were:

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.” (1987, Leadership is an Art) As I reflect on the challenging path forward over our mountain and through my crucible, it’s helpful to be reminded of the posture of a servant: humble enough to seek out wisdom and advice from unlikely sources and to understand and suggest that maybe it’s time we left our paddles behind to continue to pursue our mission.

I also can’t wait to get to that point at which I get to say, ‘Thank you.’


Kevin Huinink is the Lower Grand Cohort Leader and Executive Director at Cairn Christian Schools.