Resilience has long been touted as an essential capability for bouncing back from leadership setbacks. Earlier this year, Rosabeth Moss Kanter advanced the conversation with an excellent article on the topic.
Yet despite the overwhelming consensus and supporting evidence that resilience is vital for success in today’s business environment, the truth remains: resilience is hard. It requires the courage to confront painful realities, the faith that there will be a solution when one isn’t immediately evident, and the tenacity to carry on despite a nagging gut feeling that the situation is hopeless.
In an attempt to better understand the struggle-recover process in writing my book, Leadership and the Art of Struggle, I spoke with extraordinary leaders across sectors and industries, all of whom had faced an array of challenges, setbacks, and adversity. As I listened to their stories, I began to realize why so many executives struggle with resilience. Each of the leaders I interviewed has been thrown off balance, in one way or another, by his or her ordeal. This state of imbalance manifested in a variety of ways. Some experienced anger and even rage, projecting the blame outward. Others became depressed and filled with self-doubt. Still others suffered physical symptoms, like a disruption in sleep patterns. One female executive told me: “My hair started falling out. I didn’t realize it was stress. All I knew was I could see my scalp in the mirror when I brushed my teeth.”
If left unchecked, this condition of imbalance can undermine a leader’s functioning at a crucial time, making a bad situation even worse, and all but eliminating the ability to act with resilience. Anger can turn into vengeful behavior further compounding the problem by destroying relationships critical for success. Self-doubt can inhibit the proactive behaviors necessary for renewal, recovery, and advance. This risk is compounded if the leader is not aware that he or she is out of balance, as is often the case.
When facing a difficult or challenging situation, it is natural to fall out of balance. The most important first step is to recognize and acknowledge that you are off balance. Once you reach this awareness, you can consciously take action to regain your foothold by engaging in a set of grounding and centering practices, allowing you to channel your energy more adaptively and constructively.
Adopt a growth mindset
Psychologist Carol Dweck observed differences in performance between individuals who assumed their abilities were innate and fixed, and those who held a model that their abilities were fluid and subject to change and growth. Those with a growth mindset performed significantly better on difficult and challenging tasks.
When we face setbacks, it is natural to fall into a fixed mindset, which leads to comparing ourselves with others, turning our energy inward, away from solving the problem, further amplifying the negative emotional spiral. This began to happen with one newly emergent public relations leader I interviewed. “There was a point where I just thought, ‘Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe they shouldn’t put me out there in front of clients.’” Fortunately, she quickly transformed her thoughts, focusing on how she could grow through the experience. She sought accreditation in public relations, which improved her skills, boosted her self-confidence, and improved her credibility with her boss, setting her on a path leading to greater career growth and fulfillment.
Those that constantly remind themselves that they are on a learning journey have the advantage. In the words of my friend, and former Microsoft CFO, Frank Gaudette: “I reserve the right to wake up smarter every day.”
Center your mind, body and spirit
When feeling the stress of time, it is easy to break from the routines that are so important to healthy living, like exercise, self-reflection, and meditation. Investing the time and energy to maintain and even enhance these centering practices during difficult times pays off handsomely, as scientific studies show. It gives your mind greater clarity and can be the source of new, out-of-the-box thinking, necessary to solve your most vexing problem.
One leader told me about how she would prepare for particularly stressful meetings: “I would not only do pilates, but I would also run eight miles. I would get myself totally pumped up so I could be as energetic and authentic as possible.”
Seek sources of support
After suffering a setback, it is natural to feel the burden of embarrassment and retreat into isolation. However, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. The leaders I interviewed had strong social support systems, and they tapped into them during difficult times. Not only did they get the support and encouragement they needed to keep going, but also their social support system was an important source of new ideas and inspiration. The PR leader, mentioned earlier, got her idea for accreditation by reaching out to a peer support group of fellow female PR leaders.
Adversity, setbacks, and challenges can throw any leader off-balance, which can lead to cascading difficulties. It is important to notice that this is happening and to take action to ground and center yourself, intentionally bringing yourself back to an emotional and physical state where you can constructively confront your problems. Only then will you be able to react with the resilience necessary to overcome your struggle.