McFarland, USA is a movie that chronicles the formation of a cross country running team by a struggling coach in a new town. The boys on the team have a shot at greatness after the coach realizes they were built for running instead of football, and the cross country team is formed. They are fast to begin with but still need to train, especially on hills, and the coach takes them out to run accordingly. The coach, after they’ve run up their hills, tells them to run them again. The guys grumble and say it’s hard, to which the coach responds, “It’s hard? What is hard is watching someone pass you on a hill… What is hard is losing.” He tells them they’re going to train so well on hills that, “When we see a hill we’re gonna smile.” Leaders know the value of hills because they’ve been up them before, and smile at the opportunity to run them again. Knowing these four stages of leadership development in crisis will help inform your own growth, as well as the growth you facilitate in others.
Stage One: Crisis
Every leader goes through crisis. You must, for that is where leadership is needed most. But this is the type of crisis that the leader experiences personally, things like poor decision making in critical moments, or seasons of doubt and even depression, or financial strain, or simply stress and worry. This is the bottom of the hill, where you start climbing and realize how absurdly large the hill is and how completely unprepared you are. It is an uphill fight to put one foot in front of the other and to keep your eyes on the goal. Compelling visions of the future and the benefits of this crisis are seen in infrequent glimpses because your head is down on your plodding feet. The most important thing in is this stage is to put one foot in front of the other, no matter how small your steps are.
Stage Two: Rest and Uncertainty
Congratulations! You’ve reached the top of the hill! But that does not mean everything is all sorted out and tied up nicely with a bow. You’ve actually just endured the crisis, and you’re spent and disoriented from exhaustion. But this is the place to take a breather, and try to sort out what life looks like after this crisis. In life this looks like your anxiety disappearing, but still having no idea what to do about the things you were stressing out about. Or your depression is over, but you feel like you’re at a standstill, you aren’t moving forward and are stagnant. At this plateau, it is important to recognize that you’re at an in between stage, and to take the time to catch your breath and prepare to move forward. Don’t sit down and believe you’ve arrived, because you’ll be stuck on this hill for the rest of your life and won’t get very far, depending on this one experience to inform your life and decisions in ways that an incomplete lesson can’t provide.
Stage Three: Clarity
It’s time to get moving again, and the worst is behind you (for the most part) because you’re hitting the downhill portion of the process. Though you’ve been through difficult crisis and spent some time in exhausted waiting, you can’t stay there, and you’re growth depends on you moving forward. This stage is extremely refreshing, because you start to gain insights into why the crisis happened, what internally was going in you before the crisis, and how you can grow. The rush of the cool breeze informs you that your life has momentum again, you’re moving forward and can see the bottom of the hill! This stage doesn’t come without some struggle (because we all know how downhills wreak havoc on our quads). Some difficult things must be addressed, and the personal shortcomings that led to the crisis must be dealt with, striking a balance between understanding, learning from, and moving past our failures. It’s not all a breeze, but it is definitely better than sitting weepily on top of the hill, and a brighter future is coming as resolution awaits you at the bottom of the hill. When you get there, you’re crisis is over.
Stage Four: Do It Again
Here’s the thing: you’ve just gone through hell and you never want to look back. You’ve grown a ton, you’re extremely proud of yourself for making it, and you’re actually a little grateful for the crisis, because you know you’re a better person for it. But to get the most out of the experience, and to learn the lessons you just figured out in the deepest soul-level way of learning, you have to do it again. But this time you won’t be alone, and this time it won’t be your crisis. To go from having learned a lesson to experiencing true transformation, you have to walk alongside someone else who is going up the same (or a similar) hill that you did. Your muscles are trained for it, and in reality you’re not doing all the heavy lifting, the other person is because it is their crisis. But rather than putting the entire experience behind you once you hit the bottom of your own hill, remain attentive to others around you who might be trudging up that same hill, and then help them. Coach them, listen to them, encourage and challenge them. Remember how awful it was for you? They’re about ready to give up just like you were, but you can keep them from quitting. Not only will you spur them on, you’ll be able to reflect on all that you’ve learned, articulate what you went through, and coach someone else through the process. You’ll know these lessons more deeply than before, and will likely never forget them because you have someone else who understands the struggle and victory of the hill.
A leader is someone who doesn’t avoid crisis, who doesn’t take the shortcut, and who doesn’t try to “move on” from the lessons they’ve learned. After they’ve conquered a hill in their life, a leader turns around and looks for an opportunity to climb the hill again with a smile on their face, because they’ve been up it before and know it can be bested. When the leader runs it again, they’ll run it knowing they’ve conquered this before, and they know that the person they’re taking up the mountain can do it too, giving them hope for the other side.