They’re the moments when you’ve reached your breaking point. They’re the moments when you want to quit, but you simply can’t. They’re the moments when you have no other exit strategy but to push forward. These are the moments that test everything inside of you with a potent dose of adversity that you never thought you could handle. Everyone has them. Effective leadership requires them. These are what I call mettle moments.

In my article, Eustressing?, we discussed the benefits of a particular type of stress called hormesis. It is the idea that a small enough dose of a harmful stimulus can have the opposite effect of a higher dose. In that essay, you read about the Navy SEALs and their experience in “Hell Week,” which, for those who survive and advance, serves as the catalyst for becoming among the fiercest and most capable warriors on the planet. Hell Week tests one’s grit, bravery, spirit, and courage. It’s one of the reasons why Navy SEALs are among the greatest leaders you will ever find. Hell Week is a mettle moment.

Mettle moments often form the building blocks of character before you ever become a leader, but can also be an essential part of learning leadership on the job. They are what people refer to gleefully as “rock bottom” moments—they survived, they learned, and when facing difficult times, know that it can’t get much worse that what they’ve already been through.

There are at least three flash points in my life that I can always refer back to in tough times. Some were self-inflicted. Some were simply a result of circumstance. But all have served to make me a better person and a better leader:

Mettle Moment #1: It’s day 3 of the Camino de Santiago, and I find myself in the middle of a long, empty stretch of nothingness near the town of Los Arcos in northern Spain. It’s early March. The sky is gray. The air is brisk and damp. I’ve ventured out alone on this pilgrimage, thousands of miles away from home, as a way to reset, challenge myself, and clear my mind. I’ve walked just over 40 miles in the past two days, and my untrained shins are beginning to scream. My legs are in so much pain that I can barely walk with just three miles until the next town. Over the course of an excruciating two-hour period, with nobody in sight, I drag myself to my destination. When I finally arrive, I don’t know exactly how I’m going to continue walking the next day, but I’m relieved that I can finally rest. I go to open the front door…and it’s locked. Locked. It’s a ghost town. Daylight is disappearing fast, temperatures are dropping, and the next town is another two miles away. No cell service. No Uber. No water. No legs. I wanted to drop to my knees and cry. But I remembered that this moment was exactly why I was walking the Camino in the first place. And in that moment, I picked myself up, and just put one foot in front of the other.

Mettle Moment #2: It’s graduation day at the university near my restaurant. We’re well aware of the crowd that will be headed for our doors the moment the ceremony is over at 12 noon. Many of my employees happen to be graduating on this day, leaving me with a limited staff. It’s like a tsunami wave hovering over you—nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. You can only wait for it to hit you. And when this wave hit, it hit. With an onslaught of orders, food came out of the kitchen slowly. Pizza dough was running low. Dozens of impatient customers waited at the front for a table. While business was booming, it’s a restaurant manager’s worst nightmare. It’s in this kind of moment that you realize, the only way out is through.

Mettle moment #3: My third moment is very personal and extremely close to my heart. It is a story related to my parents that I’m not quite ready to tell because it was so painful, so heartbreaking, and so poignant that I wouldn’t be able to do it justice at this moment, or in this limited space. I plan to tell the full story in-depth in a future book.

Everyone has their mettle moments. Some are more challenging than others. Some people might have varying levels of sensitivity to them. But no matter where you are in relation to challenge and sensitivity, the benefits of these moments are the same:

  1. They change you. In true hormetic fashion, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If you’ve survived and persevered through your perceived breaking point, it gives you the confidence and strength to take on greater and more daunting challenges.
  2. They teach you. Having experienced it, you can identify the mistakes you made, and you know what you can do better next time. You also learn that you are capable of handling much more than your mind gives you credit for. You are emboldened by these moments. Any lesser experience becomes palatable.
  3. They teach others. Experience is the best teacher, but being able to learn from someone who’s been through it can be just as impactful. Leadership is all about teaching. The more mettle moments you have, the more powerful your lessons and leadership will be.

What are your mettle moments?

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