Building Personal and Organizational Resilience

“Resilient” is an appropriate descriptor  frequently and perhaps justifiably applied to successful people and organizations. While resilience is obviously learned or acquired from experience, the question arises as to whether it is also a set of skills that can be taught?

Resilience is the capacity to “bounce back”  after disappointment, setbacks or even disasters. It is a leadership attribute that is crucial in unpredictable times or in the face of tough circumstances. It is rightfully acknowledged to be a critical component in one’s emotional health and therefore, one might argue, for organizational wellbeing and sustainability as well.

Resilient people can detect the seeds of opportunity  and the enormous potential for learning in difficult and trying situations. They can resist being swept up in the anxiety or panic of the moment and are more willing to adapt as creatively as possible to seemingly daunting challenges. And when this adversity is conscientiously dealt with and subsequently overcome, resilience is strengthened.

As with most personality traits,  the roots of one’s resilience are typically developed in early childhood, especially when one is confronted by difficult or adverse events – perhaps something as traumatic as the loss of a parent. (Having lost both of my parents at an early age, I can personally attest to the depth of the despair.) Bouncing back when the bedrock of your life has fallen away is surely a sign of a resilient individual.

I wrote about the research undertaken by Howard Gardner  on this topic in a previous article (see Anatomy of Leadership), particularly his identification of “early markers” that define future leaders. He observes that leaders are those who experienced failure or adversity early in their lives. More specifically, he notes evidence that future leaders have often lost their fathers at an early age. In one example cited, over 60% of major British political leaders lost a parent during their childhood, most often the father. In the absence of a father, he argues, one is forced to make his or her own choices and thus to have a greater inclination toward risk taking as well as being willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve their ends. In other words, they are resilient.

A fascinating account of how many parents today underestimate  – and therefore undermine – the resilience of their children at the expense of their freedom is provided by Carl Honore (Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, Knopf, 2008). He advises that obsessive over-parenting, while well intentioned, does more harm than good. Research is now telling us that, by not allowing children to experience hardship in their lives or simply to be alone to work through their problems, we will see a generation of kids who “are fatter, more myopic, more injured, more depressed and more medicated than any previous generation.” Tests confirm that micro-managed children are much less creative than those who are allowed to experience the magic, the challenges and the innocence of childhood.

The application of these research findings ought not be lost on the leadership of organizations that seek innovation as a way of achieving competitive advantage. Letting people fail in pursuit of their own ideas but insisting that they learn as a result of the experience is one method among many for ensuring the organization’s DNA for innovation is in good health.

Just as there are no short-cuts to acquiring emotional health,  you cannot become resilient overnight. It’s not about wishful thinking or willpower; nor can it be taught in the classroom or read in the latest book on the subject. Rather, resilience is acquired through increased self-awareness. You need constructive but critical feedback on your performance and you need to consider the advice given as objectively as possible. You need to expose yourself to difficult or challenging circumstances and learn from the experiences, whether you are successful in overcoming them or not.

In short, you need to accept failure as learning.  Organizations that take direct responsibility in their annual reports for negative events or lower than expected earnings have higher stock prices one year later than firms which choose to blame their lack of performance on external circumstances. Fessing up, whether in corporate or personal life, signals that you are not a victim of fate but rather are in control of your destiny.

You need to defy your fears  and become more comfortable in taking risks. Preferring the “safe” way out, accepting the tried-and-true strategy or embracing conventional wisdom will not build your resilience quotient. Risk aversion is yet another learned but greatly limiting attribute but, here too, with skill and practice its effect on your life or your business prospects can be considerably lessened. (See also my article on Understanding Risk: A Core Competency of Leaders.)

Once acquired, resilience becomes a way of perceiving and living differently,  if not also a way of leading others to bounce back in the face of tough times, hardship or adversity. With resilience, one’s internal stress level and penchant for thoughtless adrenal responses that limit choices is greatly reduced. And when that happens, clear thinking, an action orientation, and the willingness to imagine and then navigate new realities prevail.