Build resilience and learn from adversity in times of great change

A woman in a red dress wearing glasses sits by text that reads work boldly

Adversity isn’t your enemy—it’s an opportunity to build the resilience that will make you the leader you want to be and your team needs. It’s a tough message to hear in the heat of a pandemic that has torn up every business plan on the planet. But resilient leadership is being able to show up as your best self when it matters most to the people around you—like right now.

In my book, Done Right, I outlined four factors I believe build resilience in times of crisis. These are tools and techniques I’ve discovered—often learned from inspirational people I’ve had the good fortune to meet—that create a resilient mindset. In the latest webinar in Workfront’s Navigating Change series, “Out of Left Field: 4 Ways to Build Resilience in Times of Great Change,” I discussed those four factors with Dr Ryan Herson, Director of People Consulting & Project Simplifying NA Regional Lead for the world’s largest chemical producer, BASF. With a PhD in Applied Organizational Psychology, Dr Herson draws on both his research background and business acumen to determine what makes some leaders more resilient than others.

Lean into obstacles.

I’ve always subscribed to the view of legendary basketball coach John Wooden who said if you're not making mistakes, you're probably not doing anything. I'm positive we can’t be misled by a fear of making a mistake into trying to avoid an obstacle. We need to lean into the obstacle to overcome it. In the webinar, Dr Herson says:

“When you look at an obstacle or complexity, it's got multiple layers. Regardless of how deep or how thick that layer is or set of layers may be, simplicity is on the other side. If you can begin to just lean towards it, chip away, deeper and harder, you are going to create a breakthrough. At that point, you can really start to create a better understanding, a better plan. But if you run away from it, you're never going to step closer towards what you need to achieve.”

Own your resilience.

Leadership is about how you show up in tough times. I once read a letter that General Eisenhower wrote to his wife when he was in Algiers on December 30, 1942. He said: “As the pressure mounts and the strain increases, everyone begins to show the weakness in their makeup. And it's up to the commander to conceal theirs; above all to conceal doubt, fear and distrust.”

In Done Right, I shared the mental tool kit developed by Debra Searle as she rowed single-handed across the Atlantic over three months—from “playing her arrival scene” in her mind, to uplifting songs that would remind her of favorite moments.

Dr Herson’s method for building resilience breaks down in two interdependent ways. First, having faith in an operating model, stress-tested workflows, and processes for his department and team. Second, and as a result, having time to communicate effectively as a decision-maker, leader, and manager. Dr Herson says in the webinar:

“When I look at this piece on resilience, I own my operating model and I pressure test that to the extreme. That gives me the capacity and the ability and the time to think about how I am leading, how I'm showing up, how I'm processing information, and thus being accountable for the performance of what's under my accountability.”

Keep communicating.

Napoleon said that leaders are leaders in hope. That doesn’t mean that anyone should say that we’re going through this situation and everything's going to be exactly the way that it was before. No one would believe that. It’s a question of communicating realistic hope and understanding that how you communicate can trigger emotions within your team.

On one hand, cortisol and adrenaline can put us on a negative flight path and kind of puts the lizard brain into gear, bringing emotions of intolerance and irritability to the fore. It makes us memory impaired and uncreative, and ultimately causes us to make bad decisions.

On the other hand, dopamine, which can be driven by anticipation, causes motivation and attention. Endorphins, which can come from humor, can cause creativity and focus. Oxytocin, which comes from empathy, drives generosity and bonding. What I think about a lot is, what do I want in the middle of a crisis? Do I want bad decisions or motivation and then creativity and bonding?

Dr Herson came at the communication question from another direction during the webinar, saying:

“I think it’s really important to be very clear on the mission: what you are there to do as a company, and what you are committed to do, and will not deviate from regardless of the situation. That is why establishing a good mission is so important, because that becomes the bedrock that drives actions and behaviors. A vision is the road map that helps you get there and I do believe a vision should and can be adaptive. The mission has got to be stable. The vision is what you can adapt. And when you do so, if you have a way in which you can engage and an opportunity to get inputs from people, then they will become the architects of the plan and the path you set to get you through these challenging periods.”

Reflect and learn.

When you’re in a crisis, you’re learning something. Don’t worry about trying to categorize what you’re learning when you’re in the middle of it, but have the discipline afterwards to hold an after action review. This is something I learned and brought to Workfront by retired Navy SEAL Commander Mark McGinnis, who I interviewed for Done Right. He explained how SEALs routinely came together at the end of a mission and, hanging their rank at the door, went through what worked well, what didn’t, and what could be learned of value for next time.

In the webinar, Dr Herson counseled going into a debrief or after action review with a particular mindset:

“I believe that hope is everywhere. It shows up in different forms, that may not always be front and center. But when you can grab that one crumb of hope as you're working through layers of complexity, and craft hope for how your vision is taking you on the journey to achieve your mission, even from your learnings and defeat, when you realize something can come of this, it becomes a force multiplier. So when I think about this final point, about when it’s all done, reflect and learn, I recommend thinking about what you can do to cultivate the spirit of hope and understanding and appreciation.”

In the face of uncertainty, leaders must add resilience to their tool kits.

The truth is, whether in the best of times or the worst of times, things will never quite go to plan. To quote the former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth. And I’ll be honest; I certainly don’t recall writing in COVID-19 when I mapped out this year’s corporate calendar with the team. That makes one thing certain in the face of uncertainty: every leader needs resilience in their tool kit.