Riding High in April, Shot Down in May, Back on Top in June – Resilient Leadership
‘You’re riding high in April,
Shot down in May,
But I know I’m going to change that tune,
When I am back on top, on top, in June.
(Frank Sinatra, ‘That’s Life!’)
Resilience – ‘That ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever ( Psychology Today)...The buoyancy and elasticity that enable us to recover quickly from illness, change or misfortune.’
We had a big storm some weeks ago in the UK, among other things a stress test for the tree population. A few trees toppled completely; a number lost branches; and the rest all lost leaves but, apart from being somewhat shorn, they finished pretty much ‘as they were’ after the winds subsided.
Not a bad metaphor for resilience in human beings but not quite robust enough. The research data tell us that, under the pressure of trauma – our equivalent of a big storm for the tree population – a minority of us fall into depression or other serious psychological difficulties and find it difficult to extract ourselves; most of us will respond with some symptoms of depression or anxiety but in a relatively short time will be back on an even keel; and a substantial minority of us will move through this phase and actually become better off than before the trauma, experiencing ‘post traumatic growth’. (Seligman – Flourish’, Simon and Schuster, 2011; and Harvard Business Review, ‘Building Resilience’, 2011).
Herein lies the rub. As leaders, we could just marvel at the many examples of human resilience that surround us every day and conclude that there is nothing very meaningful to do to support ourselves and our people more effectively in this area. Or - in these complex and uncertain times, and in service of performance, well-being and growth - we could conclude that it is beholden on us better to understand resilience and do all we can to create the conditions to strengthen it in ourselves and our people. We can learn it and we can teach it.
The literature on building resilience emphasises the importance of taking care of self, drawing on close relationships, shaping an optimistic outlook, building a sense of medium and long term purpose, and combining proactive determination to move forward with an acceptance of what can’t be changed or controlled. And there is consistent emphasis on the need for a multi-faceted, balanced approach to enhancing resilience – the physical (fitness and stamina, rest and recovery, nutrition for energy), the emotional (emotional regulation, positive emotions, impulse control) the mental (outlook and perspective, avoidance of thinking traps, sustained focus) and the spiritual (values and beliefs). For instance, Seligman’s current resilience programme for the whole US army is teaching emotional, social, spiritual and family ‘fitness’.
In our view, what is most important is that we abandon notions of ‘toughing things out’. Instead, we need to develop the capacity to reframe the stressful situations that confront us, in such a way that we can find positives and thus empower ourselves to take action that really helps us:
‘It is the meaning we attach to events, not the events themselves, which largely determines how we react to them’ (M. Neenan, 2009)
‘If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment’ (Marcus Aurelius)
So, taking the frame that ‘Resilience is better understood as the opportunity and capacity of individuals to navigate our way to psychological, social, cultural and physical resources that may sustain our well-being’, here is a proposition for five practices to shape and guide our work in enhancing our own and our people’s resilience:
1. Infuse our lives, our teams and our organisations with a passionate sense of purpose. We know that it is easier to ride the ups and downs, deal with the knocks and overcome the inevitable obstacles if we are clear on purpose - if our lives, our teams and our organisations are led more by our moral and strategic compass than the demands of the clock. As I reach the end of my sixth decade, I need to be resilient to meet the demands and obstacles of later life – Simone de Beauvoir’s helpful advice that ‘if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, it is essential to go on pursuing ends that give our existence meaning, such as devotion to other people, causes and creative work’ is all about purpose.
2. Master the art of ‘reframing’, particularly when the pressure is on and emotions can be running high.
· Look at Owen Farrell, England’s young rugby fly half. A few weeks ago, he was having a difficult time, missing three kicks at goal in front of 80,000 at Twickenham. But nor for him any ‘catastrophising’ - ‘It’s not my day, I can’t kick, it is just going to continue like this.’ Instead, he found a way to score another 15 points and contribute to a handsome win. As he said afterwards, ‘Why would you let it affect you? You’ve got to move on. If you focus on what has just happened, you are not going to have a grip on the game. And that is what a fly half’s job is. Irrespective of how a kick went you have to back yourself and go on. You have got to keep a clear head. Work out what went wrong; then put it behind you and move on.’
· Seligman talks about the thinking choices made by two young able financial services experts who suddenly found themselves out of a job and struggling to find their next employment. One drifts away and settles for a soft option – ‘I’m just not cut out for finance, the economy will take years to improve’. The other finds an even better job – ‘It is not about me. I have attractive skills. It is a tough economy but there is a market for people like me and I will find something in the end.’
· Other reframing examples include:
o ‘This is the jolt I need to force me to set different objectives for the next phase of my life’
o ‘I can give myself choices and be a flexible thinker’
3. Appreciate, nurture and practise practise practise our strengths. Elite sports people and musicians do this day in day out so that they are ever more prepared to withstand enormous pressure in the public eye and deliver outstanding performance – often, at their very best, with a wonderful sense of calm.
4. Organise regular ways to let off steam. We cannot keep absorbing all the pressures- we have to let off steam, and ring out the sweat and detritus of day to day stresses and strains. Friends of mine wrestling with serious illness have strong support networks to help them ‘cry, shout in anger and desperation, and occasionally laugh with joy’. When interviewing some 30 CEO’s for a book a few years ago, they all told us about the safety valves they built into their lives (collecting antiques, never working after Friday night at weekends etc). And Lynda Gratton’s notion of support groups is very helpful here – the posse (the people we can call up to support us on a particular demanding task); the big ideas group (the many people we can interact with over time to think and learn productively); and the self-generative group ( the small group of intimates with whom we can laugh, shout and cry) (‘The Shift’, Harper Collins, 2011)
5. Teach and share our psychological understanding with our people. Seligman’s team has been teaching 40,000 US Army drill sergeants the knowledge and skills to enhance their and their people’s resilience – so that they can teach their soldiers. We can do that too, building this understanding into our leadership lexicon to good effect.
We can see these practices at play in our friend and colleague Neil Burns’ comments on resilience in his own life (Neil has been a professional cricketer and now coaches a number of high performers in elite sport and business):
‘Resilience has been key. Setbacks, disappointment and rejection have been
constant companions. But, my desire to become wiser and experience future success has underpinned my progress. I have come to understand that 'achievement' comes through doing smart work (repetitively) for many years. Whether it is building a skill or developing quality relationships to build deeper trust, consistency of approach towards developing greater excellence is essential. Any time you feel like giving up, it is about finding the will to carry on. And, having quality people around you (when you are on the cusp of giving in to your own negative thoughts) can be pivotal to strengthening that will. Very few people (if any) can succeed alone.’