Leading with Resilience (by Linda Hoopes)

The first article in this series focused on personal resilience—how individuals can use their energy more effectively during disruption. This second article will explore the role of leaders in creating an environment that supports resilience. If you haven’t read the first article, please do it now, as this one builds on the language and concepts introduced there.

As a leader, you create the conditions under which people flourish or suffer during change. You are a sculptor and architect of human energy. In a turbulent world, this is arguably the most important responsibility you bear. Here are a few thoughts on how to lead with resilience:
Hou me vast.

1. Understand and manage your own responses to change

You are a human being first. If your energy is drained in turbulence, you won’t be much help to anyone else. In addition, once others see you as a leader, you automatically become a role model whether you like it or not. People will take their cues from you. If you are negative, unfocused, inflexible, disorganized, and risk-averse, they probably will be too. So it’s worth taking some time to become consciously competent about your own resilience.

It’s also important to know what to do if you are an exceptionally resilient person. In my experience, leaders in this situation face a specific and unusual set of challenges. They find change so energizing that they often stir things up without thinking about how others might react, and end up frustrating the people around them.

2. Coach and support others in their resilience development

Formally or informally, you are in a position to help others build their resilience. This can take a lot of forms. You can simply be helpful and encouraging to others as they work their way through disruption—a listening ear, an open heart, and a set of willing hands are wonderful resources. You can serve as a mentor or coach to people who have decided to strengthen their resilience. If you are in a formal leadership role, you can include resilience in the elements you hold people accountable for developing.

If you do any of these things from a position of judgment, however, your work will be counterproductive. Your role is to be a companion and guide. For this reason, one of the most powerful things I’ve seen leaders do to help others is to share their own development journey. What have you struggled with during change? What challenges have helped you grow stronger? What vulnerabilities do you feel?

3. Identify and leverage resilience strengths in team settings

If you lead teams, you know that individuals bring different gifts to their work. Apply this same thinking to resilience: Individuals’ change muscles can complement one another. You may have one person who is extremely positive, but not very organized; another who is organized but not very focused; and a third who is proactive but not very positive. If the weaknesses dominate, the team runs the risk of significant energy drains during change. By combining strengths, the team can be more resilient together than they could separately.

Sometimes you’ll find a team with a collective blind spot in one of the elements of resilience. For instance, you may have a group of people who all seek high levels of certainty before taking action. While this may serve them well in their day-to-day work, it is likely to lead to challenges when they are in the midst of change. In this case, you may want to work with the entire group to strengthen the “proactive” muscle, encouraging them to try small experiments as a way of starting to become comfortable with larger risks.

4. Create a culture that supports resilience

Culture is the aggregate of a hundred thousand individual choices about how to act in ambiguous situations. Do I send you an e-mail or walk down the hall to your office? Do I return the call from the customer right now, or wait until tomorrow? Culture is shaped by structures, processes, stories, examples, and rewards.

Because it’s so complex, shaping a resilient culture is the most difficult of the components listed here. But it’s also potentially the most powerful. What if every time an individual had to choose between viewing a challenge as an opportunity or a danger, they chose the opportunity? What if every time an individual had to decide whether to come up with creative options or stick with the tried and true in an unfamiliar situation, they got creative?

Your goal here is to think about how you can shape an environment that reminds people to be positive, focused, flexible, organized, and proactive, and that supports and reinforces them when they do, rather than punishing them for doing so.

Let’s take one example: Focused. Do you as a leader articulate one clear set of priorities, link everyone’s individual priorities to those of the organization and the department, and honor people who say “no” to activities that are not aligned with those priorities? Or do you add new priorities every day, send mixed messages about what’s most important, and expect people to get everything done without questioning? Guess which one is more supportive of individual resilience.

I’d love to hear other ideas about how you support resilience through your actions as a leader. You can find me on Twitter, on my blog, or on email.

Next time: What can change agents do to execute initiatives in a way that optimizes resilience.