How great leaders develop and leverage resilience
February 17, 2021Change Leadership
Above: pink flannel flowers (Actinotus forsythii) leverage the devastating bushfires to germinate and carpet the burned-out Blue Mountains National Park with colour.
We hear a lot of people hoping 2021 will be ‘better’ than 2020 but will hoping and praying for the world to provide a better setting really improve your outcomes in the long run? The world has changed. No normal exists, only an ever-evolving future filled with abundant challenges and opportunities.
We cannot control the economy, the pandemic or many other things. But we can control much of ourselves and how we respond to our surroundings. This is the underlying principle of resilience.
Dictionary definitions of resilience vary, including:
► The quality of being able to return quickly to a previous good condition after problems (Cambridge)
► An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change (Websters)
► The ability of a system or organization to respond to or recover readily from a crisis, disruptive process (Random House)
The consistent theme is how one responds to a potentially threatening outside force.
I’ve worked with great corporate leaders and many who have struggled over the past year. The following insights summarise how the most resilient leaders think and respond:
1. In the corporate world, resilience is fundamentally about responding constructively to change
Whether the change is an unprecedented crisis, a transformation, a turnaround or constant incremental shifts, resilient leaders are comfortable in uncertainty, pressure, ambiguity and take full ownership of forging the path ahead.
Resilient leaders see adversity as a temporary step in a journey. To quote Dr. Alan Weiss, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” We choose how long we dwell on a problem before acting toward an outcome.
Resilient leaders don’t crave normal, only ‘next’. Therefore, in the more rapidly changing world of the 2020s, resilience is a must-have leadership trait.
2. Resilience is more than ‘bouncing back’ or ‘surviving’ adversity
Resilience is often seen as our ability to ‘cope’ or ‘survive’ difficulty. I believe resilience is more than this. True resilience is a leader’s ability to thrive, innovate and create new forms of value, within themselves and in others, when challenges arise.
Neuroscientific research shows labelling emotions and using ‘cognitive reappraisal’ helps manage and reduce emotions that can destabilise us.
Resilient leaders acknowledge and discuss emotions during change as a means of addressing them before framing the situation more helpfully and continuing to take constructive action.
When the outside force strikes, resilient people ask: “What can I take out of this? How do I currently feel and how should I feel about it?” They take a moment to process and overcome the default fear or stress.
Resilient leaders use this technique daily, not just to cope with adversity, but to drive innovation, change and growth in themselves and others.
3. Resilience is both a capability to be learned (an outcome) as well as a practice that must be lived (a process)
While we all experience change, challenge and crisis in our lives, those that exemplify resilience have acquired the knowledge, perspective and mindset around challenging changes that enable them to see it differently.
While consciously building knowledge of our brain biology and psychology will help, resilience is only truly realised through the practice of overcoming challenges. In this way, resilience is like a muscle to be built through strenuous activity.
As our minds biologically present change as a threat, we instinctively tend to avoid challenge and change. This is the barrier preventing most people from being successful.
For some the thought of running a painful marathon is terrifying. Others see it as a means of achieving fitness, self-worth and fulfilment. One focuses on the process, the other on the outcome. To over-simplify it into one of the biggest cliches in history: no pain, no gain!
4. The most resilient leaders don’t just respond well to adversity, they actively seek it.
Resilient leaders don’t seek an easy life. They have a higher risk appetite, so they tend to chase, as well as respond to change. Successful transformation leaders tend to be highly resilient – how else could they drive through resistance and execute repeated, radical organisational change over 3-5 years?
They are willing to experiment, try new things and accept small failures as stepping stones to bigger things. Leaders who role-model and promote this, tend to have fearless, growth-oriented teams that show resilience through crisis and transformation.
Two great leaders I spoke to recently had different experiences in 2020 but each extracted great lessons. One’s workload skyrocketed, with abundant new challenges and experiences forced upon them. The other’s workload disappeared following redundancy, enabling greater time for personal reflection and conscious, planned learning. Both claimed 2020 as one of their greatest years of personal growth.
Building from the crises of 2020, now is the time to ask yourself how you view the challenges and changes of the past year.
- What did you learn and how did you grow? Leverage this and take confidence from it.
- Are you excited or fearful about what 2021 might bring? Seek the attitude that alleviates stress and motivates you.
- What challenges will you actively seek to develop, grow wisdom and strengthen your resilience? Remember, challenges build your ‘resilience muscle’.
- What different thinking will help you turn pain into gain? Changing your thinking is at the heart of growth and focusing on a positive outcome makes a tough process easier.
Following this reflection, the secret is to consciously select the attitude and actions that will yield learning, growth, opportunity and fulfilment, whatever winding path lies before you.
By Huw Thomas – Principal Consultant, Head of Thought Leadership & Innovation