Just yesterday I passed a sign along the side of the road that caught my attention.
The sign indicated a geographic point of separation between the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds in Colorado. Watershed in this sense of the word points us to where water will drain from these mountain tributaries.
While this is a literal watershed place, leaders are often faced with figurative watershed moments in their development as leaders. Dictionaries define this sense of watershed in the following manner:
…a time when an important change happens
…a crucial dividing point, line, or factor: turning point
…a critical turning point in time where everything changes that will never be the same as before
Watershed Moments and the Level 5 Leader
Leadership theorists point to related concepts as they describe how leaders develop. Jim Collins talks about events such as a battle with cancer, changed war orders, or religious conversion as creating a watershed moment for developing “Level 5 Leaders.” Collins explains that such experiences allow the level 5 seed to sprout in their lives. Robert Clinton engages integrity checks developing leaders face in his discussion of leadership emergence theory. These integrity checks are often watershed moments, shaping and defining the character of the developing leader.
Watershed Moments and the Twice-Born Leader
Abraham Zaleznik puts forward what he calls “twice-born” leaders in a 2004 HBR article. Zaleznik points to “once-born” and “twice-born” personalities, and argues that it is twice-born personalities who tend to be leaders. According to Zaleznik, while “once-born” individuals have fairly straightforward and relatively peaceful experiences in adjusting to life, “twice-born” individuals often do not having an easy time. Their lives and upbringings were often marked by continual struggle to attain some sense of order, and this struggle created “twice-born” occasions to grow as leaders.
Watershed Moments and You
If you look around at leaders we generally respect, they are often leaders who have faced watershed and challenging moments in their lives. Consider Abraham Lincoln’s overcoming of failure before leading the US through its historic watershed season. Consider Nelson Madela’s time on Robben Island. Consider Martin Luther King’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.”
Although the experience of difficult circumstances is not something we wish upon ourselves, these circumstances often define watershed moments in our own leadership development journey.
- How will we face them?
- How will we face opposition?
- How will we face failure?
- How will we face an opportunity to “get away with something”?
- How will face physical pain such as a life-transforming accident or a battle with cancer?
- How will we face the loss of a job or position?
Will we face our challenges as watershed moments? Embrace your challenges in life and leadership as opportunities to develop your character, courage, and conviction.
As you think through your own leadership journey, what have been your watershed moments in life and leadership development?