Resilience is the leadership skill you need to be building right now.

Resilience may prove to be your most important leadership skill in 2021.

Why? Resilience is the skill you need most to work effectively amidst a wide range of life and leadership challenges. Specifically, the challenges you face in times of uncertainty, stress, volatility, and change—times like now.

Setbacks, even outright failures, are inevitable for every leader. The more resilient you are, the easier it becomes to rebound and the faster your recovery time. Amit Sood, MD, the Executive Director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Well-Being, defines resilience as ‘your ability to withstand adversity and bounce back and grow despite life’s downturns.’

Are your resilience skills ready for the second year of a global pandemic, with divisive tensions continuing to dominate our political, racial, social, and economic reality?

What is Resilience? And why does it matter for leaders?

2020 challenged everyone in one way or another, as I frequently heard from the leaders I coach and train. However, some leaders were better able to withstand those challenges and readily bounce back; some even seemed to thrive. These are leaders with strong and effective resilience skills.

Resilience is not a ‘trait’ that you have or not. Rather, it is a combination of thoughts, behaviours, actions and more that can be learned and developed to help you build and strengthen your resilience quotient.

As you do, you will be strengthening your ability to manage challenges in constructive ways that allow you to recover and continue to lead well.

For leaders everywhere, resilience is a skill you can count on to boost your effectiveness despite prolonged uncertainty.

How can you develop Resilience?

Resilience is a skill that can be learned. It can also be strengthened with focus and practice.

The most effective leaders build from every experience and invest in developing a deep well of resilience. Some, for example, have learned to harvest insights and learn from setbacks and failures. Others have developed a practice of appreciation, shining a light on the silver linings they see when they reframe adversity. Just like putting money in the bank, they can then draw strength from their resilience ‘account’ when they need it most.

How about you, are you cultivating resilience in your own leadership? Are you ready and able to tap into it when challenging situations arise? Or are you wondering, ‘what can I do to get started’? Your thoughts are critical inputs to resilience, so I encourage you to start by focusing your thinking on the present.

Simple Resilience-Building Tracker: One of the ways of assessing your own resilience is to consider how long it takes you to bounce back when challenges and adversity strike. It is a question worth considering right now, and from time to time, as you begin building your skills as a resilient leader. Take note of your progress and celebrate yourself as you deepen your resilience.

Focus on the Present

One of the most powerful ways to be more resilient is to focus your thinking on the present. Be honest with yourself when faced with a particularly challenging situation: are you focussed on the present moment, or are your thoughts somewhere else?

Unless you are reflecting thoughtfully and constructively about the past—or intentionally looking ahead to plan—you are simply ruminating.

And ruminating is not at all helpful.

In fact, too much of a ruminating default pattern can be downright destructive, especially when you need to be thinking clearly and effectively.

When you stay focussed on the present, you can appreciate the challenge you face with clarity and focus. For example, being able to discern what is real (and not), as well as appreciating how it may or may not affect you.

Staying present will also equip you to distinguish what is within your control, helping you focus your energy most constructively. Each of these inputs enables you to lead with greater clarity and focus as you consider how to process the issue at hand.

Leadership Resilience Exercise: Pay attention to your thoughts and challenge yourself to stay present. Look and think clearly about what is real now, in the present moment. Write it down to center yourself and move forward.

Reframe Your Thoughts

Now, ask yourself about the nature of your thoughts in those challenging moments.

  • Are your thoughts typically positive or negative?
  • How do you tend to see yourself in them?
  • Do you see yourself overwhelmed and unable to move forward? Or are you more inclined to see yourself challenged but undaunted by the situation?

For example, if you view most situations negatively and perceive yourself as a victim of the circumstance, you risk getting stuck in ‘victim’ mode. In this mode, you will find it much harder to move forward productively.

If that sounds like you, begin to pay attention to the nature of your thoughts and how they may be influencing you. As you do, can you also identify the emotions they may be triggering?

It can be easy to get caught up in doomsday thinking and negative emotions that shut you down and compromise your ability to respond effectively. Instead, challenge yourself to name the negative thinking pattern and invite yourself to pause, regroup and reframe your thoughts.

For example: What insights can you appreciate from each experience; how might they serve you in future? Or, if the approach you contemplated is not viable, what other possibilities might you now be able to see given your experience thus far?

However challenging the situation may be, you will always be well-served with a clear head and a belief that you will, eventually, find a way forward. Doing so gives you the ability to focus your thinking more constructively as you consider potential ways of solving the challenge. It also helps you move to action.

Leadership Resilience Exercise: Look closely at your typical thought patterns, especially if your default is negative, and invite yourself to consider a more positive, and constructive, frame of mind. Challenge yourself to do this each day for a week, and notice what happens when you reframe your thoughts.

Take Your Next Step Toward Resilience

When you challenge yourself to focus on the present moment and adopt a more positive, constructive mindset, you have already set yourself up to move to action. Even better, you will be able to avoid the kind of knee-jerk or emotional reactions that will not serve you as a leader.

Instead, you will be well-positioned to consider and choose the most constructive response. By choosing to Respond, rather than React, your actions will be more effective, and more appropriate to the situation.

If you are wondering what those responses might look like, here are two pandemic-related examples from the leaders I work with. In each case, their ability to stay present and positive enabled these leaders to respond thoughtfully when the pandemic led to significant, unexpected challenges:

  • One leader realized team members were struggling and overwhelmed. They opted to focus leadership time on people and relationships, rather than the work at hand.
    Result: Positive team engagement and performance, with only minor shifts in deadlines and deliverables.
  • Another leader experienced a lay-off. Instead of seeing herself as a failure, she used the time to develop new skills to enhance future employment opportunities. She also used the time to apply current skills and experience to community needs.
    Result: Leadership growth, development, and fulfillment, coupled with valuable community impact.

Leadership Resilience Exercise: Take the time to consider, and choose, your most productive and constructive next step, rather than reacting precipitously or emotionally when challenge and adversity strike.

Commit to Core Resilience Habits

In addition to the three practices we have just reviewed, there are two readily available ‘core resilience habits’ I encourage you to invest in on an ongoing basis. Think of these as your non-negotiable internal and external practices:

  • First, make time to take care of yourself, instead of compromising your own health and wellbeing, when you face challenges and adversity. Every investment you make in leadership self-care makes a positive contribution to your resilience, enabling you to lead effectively throughout.  
  • Second, stay connected to the colleagues and supportive communities that serve you well as a leader. These personal connections offer you a ready place to talk through challenges, process what might feel particularly daunting, and brainstorm alternate approaches. Engaging with trusted colleagues brings people together in times of adversity, enabling much-needed encouragement, perspective, inspiration, and support for all.

As a leader, you are inevitably going to have times when circumstances stop you in your tracks or force you to pause and consider what may come next. When they do, how quickly are you able to work through the situation, recover your leadership footing, hit reset, and begin again?

In times like these, resilience is the skill you need the most, and it is a skill you can learn, and strengthen, to grow as leader.

By focussing your thoughts on the present, adopting the habit of reframing negative thoughts, and choosing to respond thoughtfully rather than reactively, you will be building vital resilience skills. Skills that add up to leadership resilience and effectiveness, whenever the need arises.

Investing in your own resilience, as well as your core resilience habits, also helps you foster resilience for those you lead.

Michelle Lane

Michelle Lane is a leadership development coach, consultant, and facilitator with 40 years of diverse leadership experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Michelle can be reached at mlane@vibrantleaders.ca.

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