According to Merriam-Webster, resilience is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change”. In other words, it’s our ability to acknowledge change and adapt to it. It’s not the absence of distress that defines resilience, rather the perseverance through that distress.
In construction, the resilience of a structure describes its ability to deal with disasters or emergency situations; essentially, a measure of whether or not it falls apart when external forces bear down. In leadership, external forces will always be putting stress on projects, organizations, and teams.
Importance to Leadership
Life is unpredictable. That’s the short answer, but I imagine you’re looking for something more palpable.
Things are going to change, and if you don’t account for that, you’ll be left behind. High levels of resilience signify a growth mindset, wherein we learn from what went wrong. That’s an important part: something has to go wrong, and it has to be seen as a learning opportunity.
This brings up Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s book, Option B, in which resilience is broken down into a reproduceable process. When Option A isn’t available, you have no choice but to go with Option B (or C, etc). But several psychological barriers stand in the way. While the stories in Option B use heavy examples of misfortune, leaders need to recognize that they are not only dealing with their own resilience, but that of their team. Each individual team member must have their own, of course, but that will be, in part, grounded in the leader’s strength.
When Evan Williams co-founded Blogger, he had his resilience tested when the blogging site, which started as a side project, wasn’t producing the funds needed to make it a real company (or a sustainable one, at that). At one point, he had to let his entire staff go. He could have called it quits, but he accepted reality and pushed forward, doing whatever was necessary to make Option B work. This adaptation eventually paid off after Google bought Blogger, allowing Williams to move on to new projects, namely Twitter and Medium.
In one interview, Mike Tyson was elaborating about people’s reactions to adversity. He said, “If you’re good and your plan is working, somewhere during the duration of that, the outcome of that event you’re involved in, you’re going to get the wrath, the bad end of the stick. Let’s see how you deal with it. Normally people don’t deal with it that well.”
Flexing vs Strengthening
Think of resilience as a muscle. You can spend time strengthening it for the times you’ll need it. In this case, you don’t know when you’ll need it, just that you will. And when you’re forced to use it, you find out quickly whether you have enough.
Exhibiting resilience is the same as flexing a muscle, short of doing it to show off. It is when you’re using the skill to adapt to change. Similar to strengthening, it is a time for learning. Where it differs from strengthening is in your focus. With flexing, you’re at a disadvantage because you have only the existing muscle memory and self-awareness available to you to adapt. We often look at leaders who make the right decisions with ease as being more brilliant. Yes, perhaps they are, but not because they were born that way.
This gets into what is called flow, or the balance of skills and a challenging situation to achieve some goal. Resilience, by definition, presents the requisite challenge; generating the corresponding skill is up to you. When you have it, you’re in the flow state; when you don’t, you’re overwhelmed with anxiety, sometimes exceedingly so. This leads us to the need for preparation through deliberate practice.
Strengthening is the intentional preparation you do to ensure the muscle is there when you need it. Anyone who has been to a gym in the history of gyms can attest to there being two types of people there: those who lift weights in a very deliberate way that yields results, and those who just throw weights around and see no results. To push yourself to higher levels of resilience, you have to commit to deliberate practice.
As a leader, it’s difficult to know exactly what is going to happen and how deeply it will flood your team and organization. When adversity strikes, it is important to maintain your self-control, tap into support, and act on feedback. So what can you do to prep for the unknown?
Mindfulness: Practice mindfulness-building activities, such as meditating and giving yourself a routine filled with good, solid habits. These will help create a structure that you can return to. Routines are akin to a default setting, and meditation helps you control your reaction to emotions which are invariably going to arise with large setbacks. With this idea, you’re training yourself to take care of your life on auto-pilot while you focus on the obstacles and options.
Support System: I can tell you from personal experience that after the chips are already down is the wrong time to build your network of supporters. That’s when you want to call on them not just for encouragement, but to help flesh out ideas and available options. When the ocean is calm, reach out to people and build a close network for every area of your life. Then when the waves come, and they will, you know you have people to help you.
Feedback: Get in the habit of getting feedback from your team and from people outside the team. Adversity is a type of failure, and as such, it shouldn’t be personalized. It is an opportunity to learn what went wrong and fix, patch, improve, train, coach, listen, or innovate. Whatever specific action is taken, it is a time for you to lead. With a firm habit of receiving feedback, you can trigger your solicitation process when the setback occurs and be met with a flurry of feedback that can be talked through, filtered, and organized into creating and realizing new options.