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Resilience: The stability factor in leadership

One of the givens of 2017 is that we will initially battle to write the date correctly. The other is the reality of living and leading in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. On looking  around at the changing economic, sociopolitical and environmental landscape, it becomes clear that new paradigms and leadership skills are needed to achieve success. Now, more than ever, success in business is about people development and change management. However, uncertainty blocks creativity, risk-taking, and positive growth. Nevertheless, leaders who focus on relevant attributes can be a strong and credible presence, and a rooted source of guidance for their people.  

Traits such as authenticity, integrity, vision, strategic insight, decision-making excellence, and others are clearly important in leaders. However, leaders also need soft skills (which are way harder to cultivate), such as personal mastery. Peter Senge stated that “personal mastery goes beyond competence and skills … it means approaching one’s life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to a reactive viewpoint”. Developing a strong and integrated sense of self, an inner sense of security, and an internal locus of control provides, paradoxically, an ability to cope with uncertainty and the ability to respond effectively to disruptive events. That is, resilience.

Resilience is a subject that is rapidly growing  in popularity across a diverse spectrum of disciplines, including business, public policy, and psychology. Garmezy, who has been called the father  of resilience work, shifted the focus in research from “vulnerability” and the negative impact trauma and negative life events have on development, to “protective factors” – those elements of an individual’s background or personality that could enable success despite the challenges they faced. Further research was able to divide these protective factors into individual psychological factors and external environmental factors.

In leadership terms, resilience is defined as the ability to adapt in the face of multiple changes, while continuing to persevere towards strategic goals. Adversity and setbacks, and living and leading in the VUCA world provide the opportunity for transformational growth – not merely “bouncing back” (to the position we previously occupied), but “bouncing forward”. Leaders are not successful in spite of the challenges they face; they are successful because  of them.

According to Diane Coutu, in her book  “How Resilience Works”, resilient people and organisations possess three characteristics: a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise. 

So, what can we start doing differently to increase our capacity to lead with resilience? Here are three essentials:

  • Develop emotional and cognitive awareness
The most important first step in cultivating resilience is to recognise and acknowledge when a challenge has knocked you off balance. Once you reach this awareness, you can consciously take action to regain your foothold by engaging in a set of grounding practices, allowing you to channel your energy more adaptively and constructively.

Be aware of emotional and physical symptoms of stress (e.g. anxiety, irritability, sleeping problems, headaches and muscle tension). Be aware of your thoughts. Your brain, based on your experience and your belief system (values, world view, etc.), will present you with what it considers to be the most obvious explanation, which may not contribute to rational decision making. When we face setbacks, it is natural to fall into ‘thinking traps’. Thinking traps are assumptions about ourselves or the situation, made without examining the evidence, and negative and inflexible thinking, which prevents us from seeing the big picture and finding creative and alternative routes towards a goal. The signs that you are falling into one of these thinking traps include your use of words like ‘never’, ‘always’, and ‘I/they must’,/‘have to’,  etc. 

A strategy for countering these traps is to gather more information and to generate alternative scenarios. Thinking about alternatives, and then checking those against reality, will help to ensure that you react appropriately to the situation.

  • Nourish connections and harness support
Often in times of stress, our natural inclination is to withdraw and isolate ourselves. However, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. An important part of resilience is knowing when and how to ask others for help, and reaching out to those with whom we have relationships to resolve the problems with their support. Gallup found that social relationships at work bolster engagement (those without a best friend in the workplace have just a one in 12 chance of being engaged), and boost employee retention, safety, work quality and customer engagement. Steven Snyder (in his book “Leadership and the Art of Struggle”) emphasises that resilient leaders have strong social support systems, and that they tap into them during difficult times. Not only were these support systems a source of encouragement that they needed to keep going, but also an important source of new ideas and inspiration. 

  • Selfcare  
One of the most counterproductive things we tend to do in times of increased stress and limited time is to neglect our physical well-being. It is easy to break from the routines that are so important to healthy living and leading: a good sleeping routine, regular exercise (at least five times per week), and a healthy and balanced diet. Research has repeatedly demonstrated the importance of these aspects for physical and emotional health, energy management, and cognitive clarity (attention, concentration, and decision-making capacity). A drink after work is not what you need. Get active, enjoy nature, reflect, meditate, and do something creative – even if only for 30 minutes. 

Victor Frankl said that choosing our attitude and response to any situation is the only true freedom we possess. Despite the overwhelming consensus and supporting evidence that resilience is vital for business success in today’s very dynamic VUCA world, it enjoys limited attention. Leaders must build their resilience, and develop their teams, to establish resilient and sustainable organisations. 

Resilience is difficult to achieve: it requires the courage to remain vulnerable enough to be empathic, strong enough to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, and flexible enough to grow, not crumble, through adversity.

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Dr Renata Schoeman is a psychiatrist in private practice with a special interest in cognition, mood and anxiety disorders, and corporate mental health. She is a faculty member of USB-ED’s Neuroleadership Programme, and is a senior lecturer in Leadership at USB. 




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