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Becoming a Resilient Leader

Updated on April 5, 2015
Decades of Resilience
Decades of Resilience | Source

So what are the results of the current challenges faced by leaders? Well, being customer-focused for organizations remains elusive, uncoordinated, and execution is often uneven at best. Work processes and structures fail to create the culture of high performance and employees' productivity suffers. Leaders struggle to reduce the complexity of the organization. In short, organizations are stuck. The individuals within the organization are easily overwhelmed, disapproving, and cynical. Accountability and engagement of employees is at a lower level than needed to drive revenue and beat the competition. Jim Collins in his book “How the Mighty Fail” suggests that resilience is a key required skill for leaders today and in the future.

A resilient leader recognizes that the pace of change takes a new type of hard work and stops referring to change as a “soft skill.” It’s the hardest thing most leaders have to do in the Twenty-first Century. Developing new beliefs, mindsets, and behaviors in individuals within the organization is challenging but necessary to move forward in the Twenty-first century. Developing new leadership behaviors is harder than manipulating spreadsheets and planning the next organizational alignment. If change and responding to the pace of change was easy, more people would be leading the change effort and able to facilitate change in a smoother fashion to build and sustain momentum within organizations. But change isn’t easy or simple.

So why is it so important today and more specifically in the current business environment, for leaders to be resilient to change? Well, the first thing is that change is constant and unyielding. Organizations have no choice but to change. The pace of change is moving fast, uncertain, and difficult to anticipate. Traditional or conventional knowledge states that if you have the right business structure, an organization will achieve efficiencies, innovative solutions, and agility needed to succeed. And yet, there is a lot of discussion behind closed doors of whether the incessant reorganizations, reengineering, and restructuring are the right decision to achieve the desired efficiency for organizations today. Strategies and plans that should have worked instead fall short, yielding less than optimal results. Operational decisions that once were clear-cut are becoming more complex, difficult to implement, and ambiguous. The truth is that if a leader or an organization lacks the ability to adapt in the face of rampant competition and a shifting marketplace, the leader will fail and the organization will struggle to exist. Being resilient and adapting to market realities is a key leadership skill needed in the Twenty-first Century.

Combine this with the fact that many of the top leaders and teams within organizations struggle to agree on the direction being taken and there seems to be a challenge to determine common ground on which to move forward. Skilled and talented individuals fail to collaborate and, therefore, are ineffective when difficult challenges in their organizations arise remaining in a state of status quo, preferring to operate in silos and within traditional boundaries rather than leading through change into the future. Innovation within the organization is thwarted by the inability to find common ground, to collaborate, and to believe in the aspirational vision of the organization.

Resilient leaders can identify opportunities as well as understand the learning potential of even the most difficult and challenging situations, thus, strengthening their skill to be more resilient to change over time. The resilient leader realizes that life provides leaders with many opportunities to build coping skills and opportunities to learn and adapt. For leaders in executive positions, being aware of where they have managed to improve and adapt to change in the business environment presents an opportunity. Being open to executive coaching can allow an additional dimension of evaluating and assessing a leader’s resilience to bounce back or spring forward from personal and professional challenges and assist the leader to lead their respective organization forward.

Two great examples of individual’s leading with resilience are: (1) Olympic athletes, and (2) the infamous stories of children raised homeless or in alcoholic or abusive homes who persevere to achieve their life goals.

To become one of the best athletes in the world takes athleticism, perseverance, and resilience. Olympic athletes choose to put themselves in situations where they need to overcome the challenges confronting them from their competition or sometimes from the own confidence. They put themselves through extensive training both physically and mentally with the goal of standing on the podium to receive a gold medal. They are focused and they learn from each competition applying that learning in preparation for the next competition. They have to be resilient when they experience setbacks so that the can spring forward and go assertively after the next competition.

Secondly, early childhood experiences often provide individuals with difficult or challenging situations that allow them to grow in their determination to move forward and to be resilient. In both situations, the most likely individual is not predicted to succeed or win the medal or achieve their life dreams but through demonstrating a great measure of resilience in the face of adversity, they overcome and achieve their goal(s). Failure in small doses allows individuals to grow, learn, and adapt, and, yes, to spring forward from the current situation.

The key lesson here is that just as athletes train themselves and disadvantaged youth gain experience as they struggle to achieve their dreams and learn and grow in their resilience, so can leaders of organizations grow, practice, assess, and improve their resilience to change.

Once becoming a resilient leader, the leader can facilitate others in leveraging their adaptability and resilience to change and in being able to spring forward during tough or adverse times. Resilience in others working within the organization leads to a penchant for recognizing opportunities, possessing an action orientation, an ability to learn from failure, and a willingness to navigate through the white waters of near constant change. The organization begins to adapt and evolve.

In summary, resilience is a key component or the transformative ingredient of a leader’s emotional health and for organizational wellbeing and sustainability for the future.

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