Build resilience and learn from adversity in times of great change
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.