Velas Coaching

Why are some people more resilient than others?

People in organizations are under constant threat. Adversity and prolonged stress can cripple their efforts. Becoming resilient as a means to bounce back in the face of challenges has been discussed quite considerably. However, I see resilience as beyond bouncing back, but rather a way to thrive in spite of the challenges.

There are three ways individuals respond when confronted by a challenge. Some may survive the incident, some will also recover from the event, and a few will thrive as a result of enduring the hardship. Resilience is not just about bouncing back, but rather a way to become better.

My dad grew up poor and became a truck driver. As such, he would spend countless hours on the road, sometimes at the expense of his health. We would have enough to survive, but nothing more.

He had a truck accident that changed him in so many ways. Suddenly, he was tied to a bed, and then to a wheelchair for quite some time. I was a child then, but I understood the consequences of the situation. I quickly learned that my family was going to suffer. The inability of my dad to provide for his family was going to be tough.

My mom and I constantly thought about how we were going to survive this unfortunate accident. But not my father. He, despite the pain and suffering, wasn’t thinking of getting better and returning to driving; he was thinking bigger. The accident resulted in him gaining a new resolve; he wanted to have his own business and provide for his family. Many people, including me and my mother, were skeptical. But he proved us otherwise.

After he was able to move again, he opened a small business in our hometown. This small business wasn’t more than a table, a scale, a couple of knives, and a supply of chicken meat that he would sell by the pound. From those humble beginnings, he became a respected entrepreneur and business owner.

When I was in second grade, I asked him to buy me a bicycle, but he couldn’t afford it. Conversely, when my little sister went to college, he bought her a brand-new car. That might not sound like much, but for me, it was an incredible difference of means. He was and still is a thriving businessman who has accumulated enough resources and wealth in a way that we never thought he could.

When I was going through my own issues — being diagnosed with a brain tumor and not being able to do what I was trained to do for a living — I was able to reinvent myself like my father had done. Today, I am thriving professionally and personally in ways I never thought I could when I was going through my personal trauma.

Resilience and Thriving

Over the years, I have been studying resilience as a way to understand my father’s transformation and my own transformation after both of our traumatic experiences. I’ve found a lot of academic and anecdotal information. One interesting piece of research that has validated what I have seen and experienced is the three ways individuals respond when confronted by a challenge or hardship: surviving, recovering, or thriving.

In other words, some individuals survive and continue to function, although it may be in an impaired state. Others will recover, which indicates a return to their baseline previous level of functioning. However, others will experience thriving that will result in a positive transformation, as Yvette Nishikawa reports in her doctoral dissertation. The latter is what happened to me and my father.

What makes some people thrivers and other survivors?

Not every person that has undergone change as a result of trauma has had a positive outcome and becomes a “thriver.” What does it take? Research by Charles Carver addresses resilience in the context of internal and external factors. Some external factors include social support and psychological safety. The internal resilience factors that have resonated with me tremendously are aligned with the research of Michael Ungar. He says important internal factors include optimism, empathy, passion, insight, and determination.

My own recovery and my dad’s recovery and subsequent thriving have been based on five pillars:

  1. Embracing Change / Optimism (Change happens, but I can do something about it)
  2. Facing Fears / Determination (Looking to fear-less rather than becoming fearless)
  3. Relationship Building (Understanding that I cannot do life alone)
  4. Skill Building, Self-Compassion, and Learning How to Learn (I am stronger than I think I am, yet I can do better)
  5. Solving for Fulfillment / Passion (Finding a reason to go through the pain)

In the context of leadership development, the resilience of leaders is critical to maximize performance, reduce stress, and build collaboration and innovation. Leaders today must commit to a goal and be persistent in the face of personal and organizational pressure. Unlocking the resilience within is vital to face those challenges and thrive. Resilience is a skill that cannot be coded, but it can be learned and coached.

Within organizations, resilience and thriving are critical concepts to explore in the development of leaders. The challenge for organizations then becomes quite apparent; they must provide external factors for resilience to emerge in their leaders. Organizations must provide training or coaching for leaders to unlock their resilience, adapt and thrive, and to bloom where they are planted.

Luis Velasquez MBA, PhD

Luis is a leadership coach, employee engagement expert, and management trainer. Formerly a University professor and research scientist, Luis holds a dual Ph.D. from Michigan State University; and an MBA in Organizational Leadership.

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