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The Mind of a Leader: Being Resilient

In “Personify Leadership” an amazing two-day leadership development program that we offer, participants focus on eight key dimensions of leadership, each one linked to a different part of the body. The dimensions include:

  1. The Mind of a Leader: Being Resilient
  2. The Heart of a Leader: Tangibly Caring for Others
  3. The Voice of a Leader: Speaking so as to Resonate with Others
  4. The Ears of a Leader: Listening Deeply, with Empathy
  5. The Hands of a Leader: Delegating Effectively
  6. The Feet of a Leader: Being Accountable: Walking Your Talk
  7. The Spine of a Leader: Being Courageous
  8. The Eyes of  a Leader: Vision & Execution

We love this highly creative program as a ‘foundation course’ for emerging leaders. Totally experiential in nature, it is also skillfully designed for maximum impact and ease of application in the real world.

So today, in terms of Leadership DNA, I want to talk about “The Mind of a Leader: Being Resilient.” In subsequent posts I will address each of these eight dimensions in turn.

What could be more important for a leader than having a resilient mind? In recent years the world’s major organizations have invested heavily in ‘Resilience Programs’ because they have recognized what happens to their business when resilience is lacking. So this is not just another buzz word but it is important to really understand what ‘resilience’ points to. Ask yourself now what it means to you.

Most people will say something like, “resilience is the ability to snap back in the face of big challenges or setbacks and spring into action like an African deer.” I like that image in some ways but not in others. Fleeing from a pursuing lion or leopard is not the type of image that inspires people in organizations these days…though that is often exactly how they feel, is it not?

Facing incredible daily challenges from increasingly chaotic, competitive and turbulent business conditions, internal and external, can indeed feel like being pursued by a wild beast bent on ripping you to pieces. Don’t take my word for it, just ask a few senior managers and top executives how they feel.

My question is: where do these stressful and fear-based emotions really come from? Are there little ‘particles of stress’ that fall on people in the workplace but not other locations? And why is that some people seem to be able to take it all in stride and not get ‘stressed out’ at all? The difference in these people points to the key distinction around resilience and that is the mental ability to assess ongoing situations and sort things out into three boxes:

  1. Things over which I have total control / authority
  2. Things over which I have some influence
  3. Things over which I have no control whatsoever

Think about it. No matter what happens, if you have the ability to accurately sort things into these three boxes, you are going to be stress free and you are going to be able to respond in a resilient manner. (Unless of course there IS an actual wild beast that escaped from a zoo and has you cornered, preparing to make a meal of you .)

Here’s why:

  • If you have total control, there is zero stress. Just use your authority and voila!
  • If you have some influence, stay calm and use what you have, take your best shot and let go of the outcome. You’ve done what you could, now let it go and monitor in confidence. No need for anxiety and stress. Right?
  • If you have zero control, again, there is no stress, if you truly understand this. What creates life-threatening stress for people is their belief or assumption that they ‘should’ be able to control things in this box and that if they don’t, they are going to be blamed, fired, reprimanded, etc. Such beliefs generate fear, low self-esteem, and anger. They are not going to be resilient when taken by catastrophic thoughts.

And, people facing the uncontrollable while believing they ‘should’ be able to control it are going to be stressed, burned out, depleted and even depressed. Not really words that go well with ‘resilience’ yes? And it’s mainly because of a false belief  that they ‘must be in control,’ and the stress inducing thoughts that belief generates in their minds. Here’s a few examples of thoughts that arise when you believe you ‘should’ be in control but the reality of it is that you are not:

  • “This can’t be happening, it’s out of control and I’m going to be blamed.”
  • “This should not have happened, what a nightmare, I’ll be seen as incompetent.”
  • “Because of this, I’ll miss the deadline and our customer is going to fire us.”
  • “I better not say anything until I come up with a solution. Another sleepless night.”
  • ” I remember when this happened to Mary and she got fired. I’m sunk.”

With thoughts like this in charge, no one is going so show up as ‘resilient.’ On the contrary, they are going to be mentally disempowered, anxious, stressed and very unlikely to deal creatively with the situation. And, as a result, they may indeed be blamed or even fired as a result. Have you been to this lonely place before?

But what is the context for un-resilient responses like these? Sadly, it usually links back to an organizational culture where leaders have little empathy for the challenges their people face. Being busy and often overwhelmed themselves, they are more than likely to point the finger of blame before looking deeply into the real situation.

This is why the most essential Leadership DNA for leaders is to create an organizational culture of partnership, mutual support and empathy. In such a culture, people always know they can send up a flare, ask for help, reach out to those who can support them and, together, get busy on creative solutions. And when they do, and the team rises to the challenge, miracles often happen.

In the Personify Leadership program there are brilliant experiential exercises in which participants are asked to quickly identify if they have total control, some influence or zero control. Surprisingly, a high percentage of participants discover that the real source of their stress —and lack of resilience— was due to believing that ‘no matter what, I should have control.” When the reality surfaces, the looks of recognition and relief are priceless. Laughter ensues. Mindsets change.

In the afterglow of this realization, during the debrief, emerging leaders say things like:

  • “Now I see that when I have zero control I don’t need to get stressed and deplete myself worrying about things I can’t fix.”
  • “I learned that, as a leader, I need to constantly send the message that ‘we are in this together’ and that people need to feel safe raising the alarm and asking for help and resources.”
  • “It is now clear to me that we need to make people feel safe enough to ask for help and that, as a team, we can calmly deal with challenges when they arise. That is the real source of our resilience.”
  • “If people are scared, worried and blaming themselves, how can we expect them to respond to challenges to the best of their ability? I am responsible as a leader for creating the context for resilience. This is unforgettable.”

So, what is the real source of ‘resilience’ in the Mind of a Leader? I think it is:

  • Knowing that ‘stuff happens’ and that we don’t always have personal control over the stuff. Simply judging and blaming people doesn’t fit the spirit of partnership.
  • Letting go of the temptation to blame people for things over which they have little or no control because I know it is going to be counter-productive in the end.
  • Realizing that trust depends on fostering a culture of open-ness and teamwork, and that when the trust is lost, our capacity to respond resiliently is going to be depleted or lost.
  • A personal commitment to send the right signals, in every situation that ‘we are in this together’ and doing whatever I can to ensure people are supported when things go wrong. Isn’t that what I would hope for myself?

I hope this look at The Mind of a Leader: Being Resilient has been helpful. If you have any questions or comments, I invite you to share them.