Resilience is a process of adapting in the face of difficulty, hardships, trauma, tragedy, or set backs. Since I work in a manufacturing environment I often think about resilience. For example the resilience of our foam or proprietary blow molded seat foundation. We design and test seating products to endure the stresses of routine use and support the comfort and durability that is the company quality brand. We go to great lengths to engineer our product to serve the unique demands of our market.
Product design and testing made me think about resilience as an adaptive response needed by leaders who face the stressors of routine activity. No one thinks about a chair failing. A chair used week in and week out does not suddenly change in how it feels, how it performs and how it looks. Similarly no one thinks about a leader failing. People expect leaders to be consistent week in and week out (i.e., compassionate, authoritative, certain, open, knowledgeable, inquisitive, courageous etc.).
Leaders unlike chairs actually experience stress inducing events and circumstances. Unlike chairs one cannot engineer leaders to be resilient and durable. The act of leading is more complex. So, how are leaders tested and proven so that they grow in resilience? Allow me to stretch my manufacturing analogy to illustrate my observations on leadership resilience.
Start with Purpose
When we think about new products the first question we ask is always how will a chair be used e.g., for a “3rd place”, a training room, a sanctuary – each application places different demands on a chair. We look at design trends in facilities. We look at aesthetic trends. Why? Manufacturing a top selling church or hospitality/banquet chair means it has to serve the customer’s purpose with distinction.
Developing resilience in leaders requires a similar intentionality. Leaders who have a sense of purpose define the present based on where they are going in the future. Think about what you want your leadership life to look like in the future. Imaging for a moment what it would feel like to experience that future – to be there and enjoying the outcomes. How do you feel – empowered, encouraged, confident, energized? Leaders always start at the future and work backwards. This propensity to live “future forward” creates hope and a sense of purpose and lays a foundation for resilience.
Resilience doesn’t mean an absence of difficulty or emotional pain. Resilience develops in leaders who practice “future forward” thinking in the midst of difficulty and emotional pain and show a specific set of characteristics:
- The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out
- A positive view of oneself and confidence in one’s strengths and abilities
- Skills in communication and problem solving
- The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses
- Accept that change is part of living.
Individuals or leaders who move through life without a sense of purpose typically share an opposite set of characteristics.
- Lack the capacity to make realistic plans usually supplanting plans with “pipe dreams” that are disconnected from their context
- Exhibit a victim mentality and lack of confidence offering the evidence of how life and circumstances have stolen their opportunity to make it big
- No problem solving skills instead they shift responsibility for action to others
- Demonstrate a lack of self-discipline as seen in impulsive actions and inappropriate and accentuated emotions (e.g., rage, fear, self-loathing)
- See change as a threat to well being.
Great leaders like a great chair exhibit a structure in life that absorbs impact and returns to its design parameters. For example, sit on a chair and stand up – the foam in the seat returns to its original shape after being compressed. Great leaders show the same consistency in character – their sense of purpose helps them keep their emotional and intellectual shape as they live “future forward”.
Define the Cost
Once we understand the purpose of a church chair and determine a design that meets the use requirements and aesthetic sensibilities of the greatest number of customers we define the materials needed to manufacture the new church chair. The process of finding quality material at the best cost helps us decide whether future customers will be able to afford the price of the chair.
Jesus’ parable about the tower builder affirms the importance of cost awareness. (Luke 14:28-30) Leaders recognize the cost of their actions and routinely reassess this cost. What costs are associated with leadership decisions? The costs of living “future forward” include more than financial costs. In a leadership context cost include factors such as:
- Impact on relationships
- Ethical challenges
- Follower’s emotional capacity for change
- Unexpected impact on facilities, regulations, and organizational structures
Even in successful leadership initiatives that propel an organization to a new level of prosperity and influence hidden costs arise because change has occurred.
The question we face in manufacturing is whether the value to the customer makes up for the cost of producing the product – the question of price. If we design ingenious chairs but the associated costs cannot be offset by the value added to the customer the price would be too high. If we design ingenious chairs and use substandard materials then the chairs fail in meeting their purpose.
Leaders routinely face similar dilemmas. What is the best solution or direction for the organization and its people? If grand plans use substandard processes and inadequate resources because a leader did not count the cost then resilience fails and the leader and the followers loose.
Our design process involves people from every function in the company as well as customer focus groups. In order to understand purpose and cost we gather advice from as many sources as possible to expect as many potential problems as possible and see opportunity we would otherwise miss.
Leaders who count the cost are only as effective as the feedback they receive. Make connections with family members, friends, and others who are important and who care about you and listen to you – listen to them. Solicit their opinion. This strengthens resilience by clarifying opportunity and identifying potential problems.
Persistence is an outcome of resilience and a factor in developing resilience. By persistence I do not mean meanness, spite, vindictiveness or ruthlessness. I mean determination, perseverance, diligence and resolution. Why must leaders exercise persistence? Persistence is the practice that refines the leader’s vision and grows capacity for resilience.
Leadership vision is always incomplete. This is one of the most important leadership principles affecting resilience. The single greatest relational mistake leaders make is the assumption that they know best because they see a future or an opportunity clearly. A leader may see a clear future. However the leader also must see the challenges, resistance, threats, opportunities and insights that have the potential of shaping or derailing a leader’s vision. Leaders need to listen to feedback to gather intelligence about the path to the vision.
A leader’s level of resilience is a result of persisting in a purpose over time. Persistence accepts help from others, looks for multiple break-out opportunities that set the stage for the future and spends very little time with entrenched opposition to the vision. This does not mean leaders can ignore feedback. Leaders who persist recognize the difference between a naysayer (resister) and an early adapter or a neutral (who will ultimately contribute to the vision when they see it works) and choose to spend their relational currency strategically.
When we design a new product we persist in getting feedback all the way through the development process. Persistence is like the actions of a great football running back like Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Terrell Davis, Tony Dorsett or Willie Gallimore. Like running backs leaders bounce off tacklers, look for blockers, see the opportunities in the open field and always orient to the goal. Like a running back persistent leaders get up after being knocked down. Persistent leaders look for new means when their planned strategy collapses. Persistent leaders listen for the encouragement of their team mates. Leaders who exercise persistence are people who:
- Meet obstacles as learning opportunities
- Learn from set backs to refine communication and clarity
- Ask questions to look for insights and correlations they did not see before
- Interpret setbacks as an opportunity to test the validity of their strategy
- Incorporate feedback into their tactical responses to new situations
Watching a leader under pressure says a lot about the leader’s future potential. Leaders who own a sense of purpose, exercise cost awareness and practice persistence are leaders whose resilience grows over time thus enlarging their capacity to deal with complexity, ambiguity, resistance, setbacks, and challenges. More importantly leaders who are resilient see opportunities others miss because they keep looking and learning while others quit.
Resilience is a mindset that practices specific actions over time and adjusts those actions based on lessons learned along the way. The combination of practice, learning and agility increases a leader’s resilience and enhances the value the leader brings to an organization.
How is your resilience? Look at the factors I describe above (purpose, cost and persistence) if any of these are weak set aside some time to think about what you see in yourself. Ask those closest to you for their input. Resilience is learned and is therefore a trait that can increase or decrease.