One of my areas of research is examining the role of resiliency in leadership. Here’s a link to an overview of one of my recent academic articles focused on the role that obstacles and resiliency play in the development of leaders (Management Research Review, Vol. 37, Iss. 5, pp.466 – 478).
In our research, we found that a variety of developmental assignments, relationships, experiences, and training were associated with increased levels of leader resiliency. Often, these developmental variables take the form of personal and professional obstacles that build resiliency in leaders.
What is Resiliency
Resiliency is about the capacity to bounce back after difficulty. Resiliency is about the capacity to persist through and overcome diverse challenges in life and leadership.
In this day and age, resiliency is increasingly important for leaders. Our world abounds with uncertainty, and it is individuals and leaders who are able to bounce back and make the best of difficult circumstances who will thrive in the days and years ahead. This is what resiliency is all about—persisting, or even thriving, in the midst of difficulty.
How Resiliency Works
Engaging the theme of How Resilience Works, Diane Couto argues that resilient people possess three defining characteristics.
- Resilient People Face Down Reality: “…coolly accept the harsh realities facing them.”
- Resilient People Search for Meaning: “…find meaning in terrible times.”
- Resilient People Continually Improvise: “…have an uncanny ability to improvise, making do with whatever’s at hand.”
These characteristics are vital for leaders today. Facing down reality means accepting the harsh realities and facts in front of us, but doing so in a way that finds meaning and purpose in the chaos.
The Stockdale Paradox
Jim Collins referred to this tension between facts and faith as “The Stockdale Paradox.” The Stockdale paradox, named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, is based on the observation that those who survived in the most difficult of circumstances (such as prisoners of war) do so by both confronting the most brutal facts of one’s current reality AND retaining faith that one will prevail in the end. It is not merely choosing optimism OR pessimism—it is the experience of embracing BOTH difficult facts along side optimistic hope.
“Brakes Break for a Reason”
My wife took me to a movie last night entitled The Hundred-Foot Journey. It is the story of the Kadam family who left India for a new life in France. As the story unfolds, this new life begins in a French village due to their vehicle breaking down. Overlooking this village, and through the events that follow, the family embraces their reality that “Brakes break for a reason.” Through embracing the reality in front of them, the Kadam family finds meaning in the moment and forges a new and hopeful future for their family.
It was a beautiful movie, and in a simple way depicts this tension between facing down reality and finding meaning in the midst of reality.
Purpose in Leadership
This tension is one of the reasons I’m passionate about “Purpose in Leadership.” Leaders who are able to make sense of the world around them—to find meaning in the face of the mess—often are characterized by a resiliency that allows them and their organizations to thrive in the midst of great difficulty.
This blend of finding meaning in the face of reality sets the stage for Couto’s final observation—the ability to improvise and make do with what is at hand. Resilient leaders face reality from a place of purpose and meaning, and from this place engage the resources around them (human, physical, structural, financial, etc.) to resolutely move forward toward their driving purpose.
Because the future is always being created as we go, leaders learn to improvise along the way. They respond to the needs around them. They collaborate with the people and resources at hand. They find unique and creative pathways forward to accomplish their goals in new ways.
How are these characteristics of resilient people at work in your life? Are you nurturing this capacity to (1) face reality, (2) find meaning, and (3) forge a path forward through creative improvisation?