Leadership resilience – what’s it all about?

Resilience as a leader is a term that’s in popular use these days.  One might even say it gets bandied around quite a bit.  But what does it actually mean?  Learning from the traumatic events and aftermath of 9/11, the American Psychological Association defined resilience as: “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences”.

The key attribute for leaders – in fact, for anyone –  is, of course, the ability to “bounce back” from these often harsh experiences. Or be crushed by them.  The popular expectation is that leaders will maintain that upbeat tempo no matter what. Leaders with a perpetually downcast eye and a quivering lip are not going to be able to inspire the teams following them to move forwards with conviction.

And major corporates and large public sector bodies can be tough schools for leaders.  When I was working for a major UK government department a few years ago, I can remember seeing some very senior leaders emerging ashen-faced out of intense encounters with staff groups about cost-savings.  They had been given a right royal verbal “drubbing”.  And yet the expectation by their even more senior bosses was that they would pick themselves up, dust themselves off and immediately move on to the next staff group meeting as if nothing had happened.

What makes leaders get up off the floor once they’ve been knocked down and start all over again? Practice?  Experience? Jane Clarke and John Nicholson interviewed 26 senior leaders from across the public and private sectors for their book Resilience – Bounce Back From Whatever Life Throws At You.  They found that tough childhood experiences had helped to strengthen those leaders’ ability to bounce back in the majority of cases. Some had grown up in poverty; others had endured unhappy families.  Some had felt like a fish out of water when they were growing up – and had had to fight to be accepted by their communities. Access to a strong role model and being seen to possess a “competitive edge” had also helped build their resilience.

That doesn’t mean to say that leaders who’ve had very happy and stress-free childhoods can’t be resilient. They can. Resilience doesn’t come from outside: it’s an inner quality.  An inner muscle, if you like, which needs development. Many leadership models (e.g. Warren Bennis, John Gardner, Peter Drucker, etc) focus on leaders’ outward-facing qualities and attributes. Yet the stuff going on inside leaders’ heads is just as important if not more so, in my view.  When leaders get things thrown at them, from where do they draw their strength to carry on? They draw on their own inner resources. Stephen Covey in Principle-Centered Leadership talks about the need for leaders to self-renew by looking inwards and making time for reflection and contemplation. Clarke and Nicholson highlight the importance of self-esteem and feelings of self-worth as key foundations for resilience.

So how do you develop your inner resilience “muscle”?  You work on your own “inner leader”.  Karen and Henry Kimsey-House acknowledge the fundamental importance of the “Co-Active Leader Within” in their recently published Co-Active Leadership: Five Ways to Lead.  Self-acceptance and self-authority are the two necessary energies to drive this part of ourselves. The mental models which leaders carry inside their heads matter.  What values system do you hold? Do you believe in yourself?  From where do you get your leadership role model? Do you accept yourself as a person and as a leader, warts and all?  Do you lead a balanced life?  Knowing what mental models you hold is the first step; making a conscious choice to change them is the second.  And that’s of course where coaching can help…..

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