Thursday, January 20, 2022
Exploring the Myths and Characteristics of Resilience

Events of the last couple years have put a renewed emphasis on the importance of being resilient. Leaders and the organizations they lead have been walloped by the unforgiving realities of disruption and uncertainty. Often in the mist of responding to the unforeseen doing all one can to operate, meet expectations, follow through on commitments, and deliver on missions there is little time to reflect, to take stock, or to gain perspective. When faced with the unexpected reflex and instinct seem to be what leaders and organizations alike rely on to weather the turbulence. Though these may serve as core components of a solid foundation, they are most certainly not enough.  Evidence and observation tell us it isn’t simply about getting by. Resilience is more about pushing through and bouncing forward after adversity or disappointment--turning crisis into opportunity and recognizing the wisdom offered by Oscar Wilde in his play, The Importance of Being Earnest, “what seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise.” Honing our capacity to be resilient can help unveil the truth of this penetrating insight and discover value in the unexpected.

At the onset of the pandemic, I began a series on “Leading Through Uncertain Times” exploring the qualities, tools, tactics, and mindset leaders from all sectors may need to navigate unsettling times and transform order out of chaos. The authors and thinkers presented in this series offer insights and advice applicable to all sectors, including the public sector. Like the topic of leadership, much has been written about resilience. I recently came across, Resilient Leadership:Beyond myths and misunderstanding, which was released in 2017 well before our current tumult. The author, Karsten Drath, views resilience as a dynamic competency not hardwired in us from birth, but developed, cultivated, and strengthened through effort and experience. He puts forth some practical steps and strategies to do just that. He offers some cogent insights on what it means to be a resilient leader, but he also dedicates a portion of his work based on cited research to dispel a few myths and misunderstandings surrounding resilience:

  • Resilient people take better care of themselves and expose themselves to less stress. According to Drath this is not so. He posits and research supports that resilient people have developed and cultivated a different attitude towards stress making it affect them less. It is not a matter of avoidance, but more a matter of mindset.
  • Resilient people are just optimists, and that “crisis-resistant” organizations are simply packed with optimist. Drath says the qualities that matter more than optimism are anticipation and conviction. The anticipation that problems will arise and the conviction that we will be able to solve them.
  • Resilience implies superiority or conveys a moral value. Drath posits resilience is neutral and refers only to the ability to deal constructively with and overcome difficult circumstances in life accompanied with a sober and relentlessly realistic appraisal of factors contributing to a situation.

Reflecting on Drath’s fuller deconstructing of these myths, it reminded me of a 2002 Harvard Business Review article, How Resilience Works, by Diane Coutu. This piece still has much to teach us. If as Gartner declares organizational resilience is a strategic imperative, then Coutu’s article should be required reading for all leaders. In it she describes three core characteristics that resilient people exhibit. They possess a “staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise.” One can bounce back from hardship with just one or two of these qualities, but one will only be truly resilient with all three. Most importantly, according to her research, these three characteristics hold true for resilient organizations as well. 

  • Accept Reality. “In extremely adverse situations,” she counsels, “rose-colored thinking can actually spell disaster.” She shares an exchange that management expert Jim Collins had with Admiral Jim Stockdale, who survived 8 years of captivity and torture during the Vietnam War. Collins asked Stockdale who didn’t make it out of the camps. Stockdale responded that it was the optimists. He explained that they were they one’s who hadn’t accepted their reality always asserting from one holiday to the next they would be freed. Stockdale then turned to Collins and said, ‘You know, I think they all died of broken hearts.’ Optimism has its place, but according to Coutu, to tackle bigger challenges a cool, almost pessimistic, sense of reality is far more important. “The fact is, when we truly stare down reality, we prepare ourselves to act in ways that allow us to endure and survive extraordinary hardship. We train ourselves how to survive before the fact.”
  • Find meaning during terrible times. “It should come as no surprise that the most successful organizations and people possess strong value systems,” Coutu admits. “Strong values infuse an environment with meaning because they offer ways to interpret and shape events.” She notes that finding meaning is a way to “build bridges from present-day hardships to a fuller, better constructed future”. Doing this makes the present more manageable, “removing the sense that the present is overwhelming.”
  • Improvise. It is about inventiveness and that ability to improvise a solution to a problem without proper or obvious tools or materials. It is about making the most of what one has on hand, putting objects to unfamiliar uses. When situations unravel it is about imagining possibilities where others are confounded.

Coutu sums it quite cogently: “resilient people and companies face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair, and improvise solutions from thin air.”

As the pandemic recedes, there may be a tendency among people and institutions to bounce forward thinking in terms of the last disruption. Leaders must not fall prey to this tyranny of the present. The next shock to the system is less likely to be a global pandemic. Regardless of what is on the horizon, a single constant remains: uncertainty abounds. The most effective way to navigate the unknown and discover value in the unexpected rests on the importance of being resilient.    

Leading Through Uncertain Times Series