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On December 18, 1998, I had an experience that dramatically changed my outlook on life. It began at a Christmas party, but there was nothing festive about it.

On that day, at the age of 51, I had a heart attack.

As I tried to make sense out of what was happening to me, the brutal reality of the situation hit me head on. I didn't know if I was going to live to see another day. As I contemplated the possibility of dying, I suddenly understood that all I have is today. There's no dress rehearsal for life. This is it.

I had known that intellectually, but having a heart attack drove the point home like nothing else could. If I want to live a useful life—in my role as a leader as well as in every other capacity—I have to make the most of every experience.

Obviously, some events and situations—such as my heart attack—will fall into the "defining moment" category. But even those less memorable moments influence our lives and contribute to our usefulness and overall fulfillment.

I'll talk more specifically about defining moments later. For now, though, let's look at experiences in general. Each one falls into one or more of the following realms:
  1. Entertainment.
    We absorb this type of experience through our senses. People who engage in this type of activity can see, hear, feel, smell or taste what is happening.

  2. Educational.
    Here, we have the participation of a person's mind and/or body. The goal, of course, is to learn.

  3. Escapist.
    This is an experience that completely involves a person—like spending the day at a theme park: riding the roller coasters, eating the funnel cakes (unless you've recently experienced a heart attack, of course), interacting with the sidewalk performers. The emphasis is on doing, as opposed to feeling or learning.

  4. Aesthetic.
    With this type of experience, you're immersed in a setting, but you have no effect on it. Think of visiting an art gallery or seeing the Grand Canyon—you're affected by the experience, but you did nothing to contribute to it. You're there simply because you want to be there.
Jim Gilmore, co-author of The Experience Economy, said, "The richest and most compelling human experiences draw from all four realms."

Very often, those events and encounters we consider to be defining moments do exactly what Gilmore described. They capture our hearts, souls, minds, senses, emotions and sometimes even our bodies in a life-altering way.

This is an important observation for leaders who want to communicate effectively. Whether you have an audience of 1,000 or one, you need to make sure you are utilizing as many of the four realms as possible.

You also need to be aware of the powerful, growth-triggering impact that these types of experiences can have on people, and do what you can to provide them in settings that are relevant to what your team does on a daily basis.

Defining moments don't just shape followers, of course. In Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders, Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas state that all of the truly effective leaders they studied, regardless of age, had "undergone at least one intense, transformational experience" that set them on their "desired, even inevitable" leadership paths.

These "crucible" experiences, as Bennis and Thomas describe them, are defining moments that "unleash abilities, force crucial choices and sharpen focus."

In essence, they teach "a person who he or she is."

Based upon what I have observed in my own life and in the lives of those around me, I believe there are at least four different types of leadership-defining crucibles.
  1. Ground Breakers.
    These experiences literally thrust us out and enable us to break new ground.

  2. Heart Breakers.
    These are those painful, unwelcome events—such as my heart attack—that stop us in our tracks and force us to reevaluate our priorities.

  3. Cloud Breakers.
    These encounters allow us to see the big picture—suddenly and clearly—like never before.

  4. Chart Breakers.
    These defining moments allow us to soar with confidence.
According to Bennis and Thomas, one key difference between lifetime leaders and "non-leaders" lies in how they respond to the defining moments they experience. "Leaders create meaning out of events and relationships that devastate non-leaders," they write.

We don't always know it when we're in the middle of a defining moment; sometimes, the importance of these experiences can only be seen in retrospect. Either way, it is up to us to decide how they are going to affect us and our leadership.

As Aldous Huxley said, "Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him."

This article is used by permission from Dr. John C. Maxwell's
free monthly e-newsletter: Leadership Wired
available at

Author Biography

John C. Maxwell
Web site: Injoy Group
John Maxwell grew up in the 1950s in the small Midwestern city of Circleville, Ohio. John's earliest childhood memory is of knowing that he would someday be a pastor. He professed faith in Christ at the age of three, and reaffirmed that commitment when he was 13. At age 17, John began preparing for the ministry. He attended Circleville Bible College, earning his bachelor's degree in 1969. In June of that same year, he married his sweetheart, Margaret, and moved to tiny Hillham, Indiana, where he began his first pastorate.

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