Toughing It out?

It seems the skills and competencies that brought many organisations through the last few years are in higher demand today. Perhaps this is because during those difficult times, we learned what leadership really looks like.

Resilience is one of those terms we frequently hear when firms talk about the competencies they seek in new leaders. We know from our own research that “leaders staying calm under pressure” is one of the most desirable attributes employees seek in their managers. Resilience is not an easy competency to evaluate, because you really have to see it in action to know that it is there.

We explored this in some detail with respondents to a recent survey on the subject. We put it to them that resilience is more than just getting back on the horse when you fall off. We asked what resilience really looks like, a number said, not falling off the horse in the first place. Resilience, it appears, begins by the leader having enough self belief that they do not let the adversity shape or control their behaviour in the moment or over a period of time.

Resilient leaders, they replied, are very self aware. They are mature and able to determine when they need to reach out for help. As leaders they are capable of critical thinking but as resilient leaders, they do not let that go to mush in the face of a stressful situation. They still engage others in problem resolution and they continue to seek to view the problem from multiple angles.

Toughness it appears is not the same as resilience. Tough can lead to inflexibility or stubbornness as the tough leader tries to stay upright in the storm, often spraying their stress on others. Some of the respondents suggested that resilient leaders are those that can recognise the adversity is temporary, that the storm will eventually pass and therefore they do not adjust their personality or responses to others significantly.

In a related HBR article, author and Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter suggests that surprises are the new normal and resilience is the new skill. She opens her piece by offering the opinion that “the difference between winners and losers is how they handle losing”. While recovery or bounceback is an aspect of resilience, what you learn from the experience is what matters. Everyone fumbles at some point, but resilient leaders use the experience to keep on winning.

Resilient executives understand that they cannot control all circumstances, but they can control their reactions to it. Moss Kanter describes how she has seen complacence, arrogance and greed crowd out resilience, while humility and a noble purpose fuel it. She defines resilient leaders as those that in the face of a crisis, build on the cornerstones of confidence (being accountable, taking responsibility, showing remorse), collaboration (supporting others in reaching a common goal), and initiative (focusing on positive steps and improvements).

Resilience may well be about getting back on the horse when one falls off. However, rather than it be for selfish reasons, with resilience the desire to rebound is because of an obligation to others and means drawing on the support of those around you who want the same outcome.