Being a resilient leader can be tough. The one thing we can guarantee in life is that things won’t go the way we plan, so it’s essential that we learn to cope when things don’t go our way. Resilience describes this ability to cope when things don’t go the way that you want, and is an essential leadership skill in the VUCA world, as we need teams to focus on finding new ways of operating in the face of changing circumstances.
What does it mean to be resilient?
Resilience is a psychological concept relating to responses to external and consistent stressors, that mixes toughness with flexibility. When we’re faced with unexpected situations, say a sudden drop in sales or a project that is falling behind, there is a tendency to initially question the change, assume it’s only short term, or look to identify what has failed.
In a team environment, this can be very destructive, and means that, rather than looking to solve the problem, the team is running around looking to see who to blame.
A resilient team is one that is able to make sense of the environmental changes, understand how they impact on the business, and most importantly has the ability to identify how to respond and implement change effectively. This requires confidence, patience and a calm approach that trusts in the knowledge and efficacy of the team.
Importance of resilient leadership
The leader sets the tone for the team. If the leader panics, the team is likely to follow. If the leader gets angry and starts blaming the team, they will become insular and defensive, meaning they will shy away from sharing ideas and probably start looking to see who else they can shift the blame on. In any case, teh teams focus will be on the problem not the solution.
Most importantly, resilience is about coping, not just putting a brave face on things. We’ve been brought up to think that a positive attitude can solve anything problem. As long as we believe hard enough, good things will happen, but this is obviously not true. If your house floods, believing that a boat will float in the front door isn’t going to stop you from getting wet!!
Resilience is about understanding your options, calmly choosing the right one and focussing on implementing it properly.
The resilient organisation.
With the rise in uncertainty, complexity and volatility in the world, sparked by war, economic upheaval and pandemics, resilience is increasingly of interest to business and supply chains, and the skills are similar. The traditional risk management approaches no longer work, as companies are unable to forecast what might happen and how it affects them, so need to learn how to cope with events as they happen.
Resilient organisations are those able to recognise and make sense of change, understand how it will impact them, define solutions and have the flexibility to adapt whether relating to internal processes or the wider supply chain. They are not just able to deal with challenges but actually grow through them.
The resilience factor. Characteristics of a resilient leader
In their book The Resilience Factor, Reivich and Shatte looked at the psychology of resilient leaders and identified what helped them survive and thrive in difficult situations. They recognised that resilience was a learned skill, not an inbuilt personality trait and that emotional control lay at the heart of our ability to navigate difficult situations.
They focussed on 7 key resilience skills, ranging from the way we control our emotions through to a systematic approach to sensemaking and solution implementation, which will allow leaders, teams and individuals to cope with adversity.
Cognitive behavioural approaches tell us that our emotions are triggered not by external events, but by the way that we interpret these events, and that these interpretations are driven by our own beliefs or experiences. We’ll often assume that we’re the problem when something goes wrong, could we have done anything better to avoid the situation, why didn’t we plan for that??
Emotional regulation is about being able to recognise when these emotional responses are based on reality ( e.g. fear when faced with a real fire) and not our own internal monologue ( e.g. anxiety regarding the potential of a fire). This means taking a step back and thinking about whether your responses and those of your team are based on facts, or on interpretations which are driven more by our own beliefs and uncertainties than the real, hard objective truth.
CBT techniques lead us to consider the beliefs that affect our interpretation of events that trigger our emotions and to question whether there is any truth to those beliefs.
When faced with a crisis, we often feel that reacting is essential, and this is doubly true in an organisational context, where we want to be seen to be doing something, or to inspire action on the part of others. However, we tend to react based on an emotional response, and, as mentioned above, these emotional responses may be based on incorrect assessments of the reality of the situation. It is essential, therefore to slow down and allow time to consider the problem and its implications.
A resilient leader avoids jumping to conclusions which can lead to tunnel vision and group think. They focus on the facts, and seek clarification of uncertainty rather than assuming they can read the minds of others or predict the future. They focus on details rather than making general assumptions and assess the data objectively.
They don’t ignore their emotions as this leads to complacency, but they don’t let their emotions control their reactions.
We all need to be optimistic, but resilient people avoid the magical thinking that an over reliance on positivity tends to bring. Just because a club tennis player thinks they can beat Roger Federer doesn’t make it true!
Realistic optimism involves focussing on what is within your control, and how this can be modified to help find a solution. Our tennis player can control how much they practise, what they practise on, what matches and competitions they enter, which, whilst not helping them win Wimbledon, will make them a better player and increase the likelihood that they will win more matches.
In a leadership context, realistic optimism is about instilling belief in the team that they can control aspects of the world around them, and can therefore improve their performance. Our situation may not magically solve itself, but we can make things better, if only in small increments.
Learn more about sports leadership.
As mentioned above, we need to avoid responding to the voice in our heads that tell us that this is our fault. But that doesn’t mean we ignore the root cause of an issue, just that we see the problem simply as the context, the landscape we need to navigate.
The resilient leader looks at the cause and accurately identifies the root causes of issues. Take the Ever Given crash in Suez, which restricted supply chains globally. For many companies this caused massive supply issues, and there was little they could do to move the ship.
A resilient leader will look at the real root cause, in this case over reliance on just-in-time shipments and single low cost logistics channels and recognise there are solutions. They can’t move the sip, but they can reroute stock via alternative shipping routes.
Reframing plays an important role in sensemaking, as it allows you to restate a problem so that the focus becomes finding a solution. Saying “we don’t have stock Yet” places the emphasis on the future and allows you to walk back to find the steps you need to take to solve your issues.
As leader, you are responsible for the effectiveness of your team, and there is little sense in being able to think clearly if your team is stressed, scared or feeling defensive. A resilient leader needs to manage the emotional state of their team, and this starts with being able to recognise those emotions and have the ability to establish and maintain positive relations within the team.
Resilient people are convinced of their ability to solve problems. This is different from self confidence or self esteem, as it is action oriented. Self efficacy is an intrinsic belief in your ability to act, to identify what actions to take and to follow through with those actions.
It is a realistic sense though, not a general belief that you are superhuman. Self efficacy is practical and relates to understanding and belief in your strengths and weaknesses. You know what you can do but also what you can’t do.
This is really important in a team setting where a strong leader must be able recognise when there are team members better placed to implement specific actions and trust that person to identify and implement the optimum solutions
The resilient leader is prepared to go beyond their comfort zone, and take appropriate, horizon expanding chances. These will not be leaps of faith however, but based on a sound understanding of the risks involved but without letting a fear of failure stop you from taking the action.
Leadership in a crisis is not about taking action, but taking the right action. This means taking emotion out of the decision making process and believing that the steps you take are correct and appropriate.
This emotional control has to extend to the team as a whole and this emphasises the importance of empathy and emotional intelligence in team leadership roles, coupled with belief in the team’s ability to take stretching but realistic actions.