Testing Survival Skills

What is a Crucible Experience?

“…both an opportunity and a test. It is a defining moment that unleashes abilities, forces crucial choices, and sharpens focus. It teaches a person who he or she is.”

-Walter Bennis

From The Survival Template, Chapter 9

Years ago I participated in a training program that required proficiency in building “man-in-the-creek” fires. The exercise started whenever someone uttered the words “man in the creek,” and the objective was to build a knee-high fire as quickly as possible. The intent: to develop efficient fire-making abilities so that if someone fell in the creek during the winter they could be warmed up and dried out before the effects of hypothermia became deadly.

For months we honed our skills and lowered our times from about an hour to less than five minutes. The man-in-the-creek contest evolved into an event that we looked forward to rather than dreaded.

One early spring afternoon our Instructors tasked us with the chore of gathering massive amounts of firewood. As we worked, we wondered why such an effort was necessary, as we had been in the field for a week with no such requirement.

After our firewood stash grew to about the size of a mini-van, we were ordered to practice our “trouser floats,” a water survival technique that involves using a pair of pants as an improvised flotation device. The technique could have been considered fun, but in this case a glacier-fed river served as our training environment. After more repetitions of trouser floats than I can recall, shivering and other signs of hypothermia began to set in. An eternity of cold-soaked misery passed before an Instructor said the words, “man in the creek!” The fight was on!

A few minutes of bedlam ensued as eleven hypothermic trainees tumbled out of the water in search of yet more firewood for their “personal” fires. Fortunately a few of us were able to get knee-high fires going, and then later enlarge them using the previously collected mini-van sized stash. Some were so hypothermic that they just stared at their pocket knives and shivered. The rest of the afternoon was spent warming up and drying out.

The man-in-the-creek exercise took on new meaning that day. We regained respect for cold water and the dangers it presented – and also a confidence boost in our acquired skill-sets.

Warren Bennis, a prominent researcher in the field of leadership, would call our fire-building exercise a *“crucible experience.” According to Bennis, this type of transformational experience is “both an opportunity and a test. It is a defining moment that unleashes abilities, forces crucial choices, and sharpens focus. It teaches a person who he or she is.” Bennis argues that effective leaders must survive at least one intense, transformational event to maximize their effectiveness.

Another example is found in the U.S. Army’s view of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). OIF is considered to have been a massive crucible experience for junior officers, as the complexities of the conflict forced the young leaders to adapt and develop. In the future the Army plans to require its leaders to begin “changing from plan- centric to intent-centric operations; changing from physical rehearsals to virtual ones; and changing from static command posts to situational awareness on the move. They will be adaptive and self-aware…”

The term “intent-centric operations” is a fitting descriptor of our desired outcome in creating a template of objectives. This type of template enables a person to focus his intent without being distracted by changing conditions. Once a person like you or me has produced a functional survival template, it can be tested in real life. It is not necessary to seek out extreme ways of testing the template, like a triathlon or an ultra-marathon, unless extreme activities are truly part of your objective set to begin with. Simply develop an awareness of how events are related to your thinking and your template. Your crucible experiences will be there.

I recommend focusing on your template as a way to shape your thinking as you go about your daily activities. Your goals and objectives are built in, and over time you will consciously and subconsciously focus your energies towards their achievement. Most likely your “test results” will quickly become apparent to you, and you can adapt your thinking appropriately.

*Wong, Leonard. Developing Adaptive Leaders: The Crucible Experience of Operation Iraqi Freedom. July, 2004. http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil

Previous post

A Winning Survival Formula from The Royal Marines

Next post

Video - Garden Turned to Homestead Farm

Leave a Comment!