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3 practical steps to become a resilient leader

We can build “resilient leaders” by teaching a thinking style that encourages reality-aligned and creative responses to inevitable challenges.

Shakespeare surmised much of modern resilience psychology when, through Hamlet, he claimed that “there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Furthermore, as leaders we must understand the essentials of what psychology, and indeed history, have to teach us if we are to develop organisations that can thrive in the rough and tumble of oft-disrupted markets.

In such times, when customers, technologies, or politicians take unexpected turns, your managers must respond creatively yet logically, rather than resort to panic, indecision, or irrationality. So, to survive, and even thrive, you need staff and leaders, who can, to paraphrase Kipling, keep their heads when all around them are losing theirs.

As it happens, much of what we know about developing resilience comes from the Greco-Roman form of philosophy known as Stoicism. It has been practiced by many of the good and the great throughout history, including George Washington who staged a stoic play to inspire the troops whilst enduring chilling hardship at Valley Forge.

The Roman Emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, spent much of his time as leader in the saddle, fighting off barbarian hordes. He was the epitome of a selfless leader, and able to bear the heavy burden of responsibility through his much-published Meditations on Stoicism.

At its core stoicism teaches us that, while it is impossible to control all external events, it is possible to control how we react to them by learning to manage the way we think. So, if I think that a new competitor with a vastly superior product is an “end of business” experience for my company, then my thoughts might be helping to create that reality.

However, if I think that this is a great opportunity to inspire my teams to leapfrog the opposition, then I might just have a path to both survival and greater success. We have now learned, through the psychological practice of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, that such “thought management” skills are genuinely teachable.

One perspective (put by Bernard, 1991) is that we are really teaching people to align their assumptions and thoughts with reality. So, for example, if a storm damages our roof, we can get angry and think “why me?” or we can rationally assume that “well, this was likely to happen to someone, why not me?” The assumption that bad events can happen to us, not just to someone else, helps us avoid an irrational and unhelpful anger response.

Furthermore, thinking resiliently encourages us to consider how we might turn a problem into an opportunity. Marcus Aurelius said: “What stands in the way becomes the way”. What he meant by this was that any obstacle can be used as an opportunity for creative problem solving, and for the development of better personal attributes.

So, when attacked by superior forces at unexpected locations, Aurelius did not resort to anger or panic, but instead he undertook a creative search for his available options. In turn, these options might inform future strategies, and, in keeping his cool, he was further developing his resilient habits.

So, the resilient leader is one that:

  • Anticipates that there will be problems to face
  • Is neither surprised nor outwardly perturbed by the challenges
  • Can become excited by the opportunity to rationally and creatively solve problems
  • Is a rock of calm solidity when the storms of fortune rage

3 practical steps to become a resilient leader

  1. Engage resilience trainers
  2. To help your leaders develop core resilience competencies. However, I suspect that the sustainability of those skills will be poor if you do not start with yourself.

  3. Critically examine your own responses to crises and challenges
  4. Honestly assessing whether your own assumptions and thinking align with reality. If not, then start reading and learning.

  5. Openly engage in resilience conversations with your leaders and staff
  6. Regularly testing whether the organisation as a whole has rational and reality-aligned responses to inevitable change. Above all else, bear in mind the words of Marcus Aurelius: “Our life is what are thoughts make it”.

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