Resilient Leadership

Running a company, department, or team is hard. Why can some leaders can do it right away and others can’t? The key to success is to build resilience.

Resilient Leaders are Better Leaders

We often think of resiliency from a personal perspective. For example, a person who just completed an Ironman Triathlon with prosthetic legs. We rarely think of a leader who just finished a difficult year and succeeded. In fact, he became a better leader because of the experience he lived.

Resilience is a critical component of effective leadership. In life, we will encounter more than one life changing experience. Most likely some experiences will be good and some will be bad. The ability to adapt and recover from those bad experiences is positively correlated to the level of resilience we can develop before, during and beyond the fear.

What is Resilience?

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress.

Interestingly, adapting is something we humans have done for thousands of years. In fact, humans may be the most adaptive species on the face of the earth. The two most significant adaptations humans underwent through time were the ability to sweat and the ability to run long distances.

Resilience, the process of adapting in the face of adversity, is innate in us. Resilience is not extraordinary, it is quite ordinary. You build resilience so you are ready to tackle the unknown. Here are the key factors of resilience:

  • Resilience is a process – It doesn’t happen overnight, but there are specific steps and mindsets that make the process possible. The first step is recognizing that we all have room for improvement, and perfection is utopia. We all have the capacity to get better if we are committed and persistent.
  • Resilience is adapting – Often, our response to stress is to look for technological solutions. Resilience is facing the threat and taking small steps — methodical, adaptive and strategic steps — that will allow us to overcome the danger and thrive over time. For example, taking medication to lower blood pressure is a technological solution; changing one’s lifestyle to eat healthy, get more exercise, and lower stress is an adaptive solution.
  • Resilience requires gritCadets at West Point are able to reach their goals based on grit, more than other characteristics. Research shows that grit and hardiness, not cognitive factors, were predictors of success in military officer candidates. The capacity for “ordinary magic” and the opportunities for adaptation are options for everyone.
  • Resilience is not endurance – In America, 75% of employees consider their direct line manager the worst part of their job, but they stay in the same job as if things will resolve over time. Resilience is about how you take action and adapt, not how you endure with no end in sight.

What Resilient Leaders Do

Resilient leaders have developed several abilities:

The ability of individuals to adapt to changing circumstances — What got you here
won’t get you there.

In Marshall Goldsmith’s book “What got you here won’t get you there,” he highlights a few behaviors that stand in the way of success in a new environment. Often, the success CEOs and executives had before is often no longer possible in a new environment, at least not how they were used to achieving it in the past. To unlock resilience, we have to have an adapting capacity. Sometimes that means changing our behavior.

The ability to learn how to learn — Being open to being wrong.

In Barbara Oakley’s Ted Talk “Learning How to Learn,” she explains two modes of thinking. Focus mode is useful when we are familiar with a concept and we know how to solve the problem. Diffused mode is a more “relaxed” mode of thinking that allows for creative ways of solving the problem.

In the book “Why CEOs Fail,” the concept of self-blinding brilliance is just another way to say, “My way is the only way.” Learning how to learn requires the ability to accept the fact that we might not have all the answers. To unlock resilience, we have to be flexible about exploring different and novel options in order to learn and grow.

The ability to be resourceful — Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Leaders must be able to see beyond their current environment and build and adapt to knowledge generated by others. In team building, for instance, whether you are a CEO or a first line supervisor, the challenges are the same. A recent report by McKinsey & Co. emphasized that the most critical component of team building is interpersonal interactions.

Google research yielded 5 behaviors that now define the type of training and development for Google team leaders. How can an effective leader take these findings and adapt their own leadership style to build a great team in a new environment? To unlock resilience, good leaders will spend the least amount of energy in any given problem.

The ability to form robust alliances — You can’t do life alone.

To build resilience and make alliances work in today’s business world, there must be an understanding of a mutual need. Alliances are heavily dependent on relationship building and interpersonal skills. Understanding the power of influence and perception, vulnerability, authenticity, and power and politics is vital.

A recent article in HBR by Rebecca Zucker highlights the need for leaders to focus on results and relationships. To unlock resilience, we need to understand our impact on others.

Other items you might want to explore about resilience.

1-  What is Resilience?

2 – Five things resilient leaders don’t do