The Leader Furnace

Why some leaders turn out better than others

Danny Taylor

It’s too simplistic to ask if leaders are born or made. Clearly it’s a bit of both. Some people have a tendency to leadership in childhood. They get attracted to influencing others; even if it’s just being leader of the pack. And their peers often put them in these roles. They may go on to become leaders in adulthood, for good reasons or bad. Others show no sign of leadership until later, when a specific situation demands it. And many people never want to be leaders, no matter what the situation. So it’s all a bit more complicated than it seems.

Yet, for those who become effective leaders, we know what moulds them. When looking back on their careers, they point to significant experiences which tested them, and led to more competence. Four challenges stand out; novelty, ambiguity, intensity, adversity. Together they act as a leader furnace, moulding and developing the person from within, so they emerge better equipped for the challenges ahead.

It’s not rocket science!

Great leaders add significant organisational value. So understanding how they become great is important. Yet companies most commonly fall into two camps. Some, often smaller companies, do too little to guide leaders in their development; others, often larger companies, engage in fad activities unlikely to get desired results.   A narrow group of companies seem to get the focus right.

The key is to ensure leaders have development experiences directly connected to their day jobs. They need to add value to their organisation while simultaneously growing as leaders. Situations which offer novelty, ambiguity, intensity and adversity are critical to this process. These situations usually exist within the bounds of people’s existing roles. What’s required is a little bit of thinking, and a little bit of design!

Organisational blacksmiths:
What goes in? What comes out?

So it turns out it’s not so much what’s “in” the leader that makes them great, but what they’ve had to contend with, how they’ve embraced such situations, and how they’ve become transformed in the process. Let’s consider our four challenges…

….is related to what’s new. The human capacity for embracing what’s unfamiliar is what we call fluid-intelligence. It’s a well known phenomenon in research based psychology. As a matter of course, most leaders have to confront situations not previously experienced. When they do, they can ignore or reject these situations, or they can embrace them. You can look competent doing both, but the outcomes will be different. And only the creative leader who embraces novelty will develop, becoming more adept and confident in the process.

The leader develops what we might call a “readiness muscle”, such that when a new and important organisational challenge arises, she will be more likely to face into the situation, seize the day, and deliver what the organisation needs. Her development will pay dividends. The leader who rejects the unfamiliar will simply have more experience doing what she’s done in the past.

….is a result of uncertainty. While some leaders love certainty, many leadership challenges have loose ends. Or split ends! Or ends that are out of focus! That’s why they’re leadership challenges. They’re more complex. As leaders we need to deal with thorny issues, puzzles that can’t be solved immediately, that need to be mulled over and discussed. The more complex work is the leader’s responsibility. It can’t be shelved or put off until later. And it can’t be dumped or delegated. Leaders can’t throw their people under a bus. Ambiguous work needs to be embraced.

Leaders who turn away are signalling they’re probably out of their depth! Developing a capacity to deal with ambiguity always involves diving-in. Some leaders find this terrifying. Many argue they already do this, when it’s obvious they don’t. But the more leaders face into ambiguity, the easier it gets, and the more competent they become.

….is about pressure. Some leaders would prefer work to be a well-paid holiday. Everything is framed around balance. Yet while this is important in the long run, what is often required are intermittent periods of intensity. At these times, people need to work long and hard for a specific period, and their leader needs to be the key role model. This is not intensity as a virtue; it’s not a moralistic position. It’s pragmatic. We can’t be the best we want to be, or get to a place quicker than our competitors, if we want to always pace ourselves to suit ourselves. Windows of opportunity arise and pass away in their own time, and as leaders we either exploit these opportunities or we don’t.

When leaders look back on the highlights of their working lives, they often point to periods of intensity, which are experienced as “special”. A lot was asked and a lot was given. Shared intensity with others is also highlighted…. “a small group of us achieved a lot in a short time”. Leaders need to lead on this issue, deciding when more intensity is required, and how to mobilise others behind a challenge. But they also need to back off when appropriate, to ensure they and their people have time to regroup, recharge, and enjoy the fruits of their efforts.

….points to what’s difficult. If intensity asks us to face up to pressure, adversity highlights a feeling of threat, or having our backs against the wall. At its most challenging, the combination of novelty, ambiguity, and intensity will have the leader wondering ‘can I go on?’ And the positive response, the response that builds a leader’s capability, is most often yes. Persistence and resilience become critical to embracing adversity. A good leader won’t automatically say yes to every difficulty, but they can do so when required, because they’ve done it before, and they know how to do it again. They can “hang on” or “hang in” when things get tough. While we all need support in our lives, the capacity of a leader to deal with adversity suggests they’ve developed an ability to stand alone, at least for critical periods. The leader is not a hero. But they’re prepared to be the last person standing at pivotal times.


By now it will be obvious that none of these capacities are fully formed in a person before they become a leader. While some people’s life situations may give them a head start, it’s experiences that make all the difference; experiences which demand novelty, ambiguity, intensity and adversity; and embraced as challenges to seize, absorb, and leverage.

A little bit of thinking, and a little bit of design, are required to bring all this together. It won’t happen by osmosis. But it can happen with forethought, and the results can be impressive.

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