Resilience is the ability to maintain flexibility and focus when dealing with massive change. Leaders who possess this skill can differentiate them
Resilience is the ability to maintain flexibility and focus when dealing with massive change. Leaders who possess this skill can differentiate themselves and lead their teams more effectively.
In times of uncertainty, resilience is one of the most important skills for us to have. I define it as “the ability to remain flexible and focused when facing change.” As leaders, we are facing a higher level of volatility across the business environment than we previously faced. In the U.S., we are still dealing with a major political change. This transition exposed division that was not previously evident on the surface in families, offices and communities. Such division can be healthy if addressed with a spirit of curiosity and grace. Yet, how can that happen when we view our previously trusted colleagues and even family members as “the other,” or worse?
While the political environment is the most obvious example right now, we are also seeing unprecedented volatility in financial markets and uncertainty in many sectors such as healthcare. Some of this is caused by politics, some by technology, and some caused by the fact that we live in a world that is much more interconnected than it used to be. We are dealing with situations we’ve never seen before. There is no return to the prior level of control so as leaders, we need to learn to be more agile.
Take Bill, a university director, responsible for physical and technology security. He came into work on a normal Monday morning, got his coffee, and started to plan his week. At 9:10 his world was interrupted. A young student drove off the road and onto a sidewalk trying to hit other students. The student emerged from his car and began attacking others. It was the job of the director, campus security, and many others to move very quickly in this situation. For Bill, resilience was critical in this moment and in the moments following the event. He needed to respond with his full attention, as people’s lives and their well-being were at great risk.
Today’s leaders must update their leadership thinking and behavior to keep pace with the challenges they face. In this sense, leadership is always self-renewing, and I believe resilience is the foundation of it, because, as we face accelerating change, we also face an increasing occurrence of people who respond to these changes with different perspectives. If we can integrate these differing perspectives in every area of our lives – work, politics, in our communities and at home – to create more comprehensive and durable solutions, we are all served by the process. If, however, we discount others because they have perspectives we disagree with, or, even worse, see them as “wrong,” we lose the value of learning and risk the relationships required to thrive in times of challenge.
Back to our example, if Bill had only considered one facet of security, his team would have been ill-equipped to deal with a complex attack.
So, as a leader, how can you build resilience to navigate the challenges you face in work and life?
Using innovative leadership as the foundation for this discussion, we can parse resilience into four categories:
Maintain Physical Well-Being
This is the category most of us understand and often ignore. We need to get enough sleep, we need to eat healthy food and manage caffeine and alcohol. It is also important to find a practice to rejuvenate ourselves physically. I recommend a combination of physical exercise and relaxation, making sure to include meditation and mindfulness. It is hard to respond to challenge when you are exhausted, caffeinated, or hung over.
This category is the one I think we most often miss and is a skill that can be learned even in the busiest of times. It involves paying attention to what you are thinking and stopping the negative “self-talk” as soon as you notice it. Self-talk is that inner conversation most of us have that serves as the inner critic, giving negative feedback even when no one else is around to do it for us. Think of this as adopting the most critical person in your life and inviting them to live with you. What would life be like if instead you adopted the most adoring person in your life and invited that person to live in your head?
Managing thinking shifts the self-talk and the tendency to dwell on the negative. I am not suggesting we become unreasonably positive or dismiss risk, but rather, understand the risk and put plans in place. Then, trust ourselves and others to navigate whatever difficulties arise.
Fulfill Purpose and Emotional Intelligence
If you have a clear sense of purpose, it is much easier to keep life’s challenges in perspective. This would be summarized by the adage, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it is all small stuff.” I would modify that to say, “Understand what is small and don’t sweat it.”
The second half of this recommendation is about being emotionally intelligent. There are plenty of books written on emotional intelligence, but for the sake of brevity here, I would say: be aware of your thinking and emotions (see above) and manage them intentionally. Secondly, be aware of others, and manage those relationships intentionally as well.
Harness the Power of Connection
Make sure you have people in your life who support you. I recommend having people at work who can serve as sounding boards and thought partners. I also suggest having connections outside of work who can give you good counsel. Then, have at least one person in your life who just thinks you walk on water, no matter what.
While Bill’s story is more extreme than most of us face on a Monday morning, we all face situations that are unexpected and highly stressful, where something bad could happen to our organizations and possibly risk our well-being or job security. Personal resilience boosts our ability to navigate these situations and instill confidence in the people who follow us and expect us to lead during the most difficult moments of our lives.