Six Practices for Leadership Resilience
We live in extraordinary times. New dynamics, accelerating exponentially in complexity and consequence, are challenging the basic structures that shaped our lives. We need leaders that can make bold commitments, stay centered and calm in the midst of intensity, and lead the way toward a more sustainable, harmonious and just world.
You and I are those leaders. We are called to be, and contribute, something greater. Yet, the cumulative effect of stress, reduced resources, tough breaks, and general uncertainty can erode our optimism, energy, and effectiveness.
The good news is that resilience, or the capacity to make choices and respond effectively no matter what our situation, can be developed as a leadership capacity in itself.
Below are six brief messages outlining each practice. Together, the messages provide a repertoire of simple resilience “practices.” Each practice is an internal means to direct your attention and focus, and is therefore not subject to veto power by others. Organizing yourself around possibilities that build resilience, rather than focusing on the evidence that you have no control, is a fundamental principle that can benefit anyone. These practices make this pragmatic. Repeating these practices over time can quickly build your capacity for effective leadership, fulfillment, and ultimately self-mastery.
The practices operationalize a set of core assumptions:
Resilience is a capacity inherent in our nature as a biological being.
Our aliveness can be squeezed out of us by circumstances if we allow it.
And, resilience can absolutely be developed through repeated directing of our attention in specific ways.
Don’t take this on faith. Please “try on” the practice described in each of these six short messages, and see for yourself how it is helpful or not. If it is useful, pass it along. If not, you’ve spent a few minutes of your time on a simple experiment that eliminated one means for you to build resilience, allowing you to focus your attention on another!
Week One: Become Present
This is the foundation of all the rest of the moves. It is simply the recognition of choice.
When I was angry (I had a bit of a temper as a kid!) my mother would tell me to stop and count to ten before doing anything rash. The primary power of this doesn’t lie in the counting or even in the period of time that allows us to choose a wiser course of action. The major benefit of this little trick is that, in the very moment of choosing to count to ten, we are exercising choice, rather than acting out of the force of instinctual habit.
Many of us have had such experiences: we have an emotional reaction to a situation, we respond automatically and our response makes the situation worse than it was.
The fundamental principle underpinning all of our work on resilience is that, lacking the inner state of presence, we are much more likely to constrict our field of view and react to events in ineffective and habitual ways. When we are fully present and relaxed, we are able to see and choose a full range of alternatives.
One of the quickest and most reliable means to bring ourselves into the present is to do a quick body check, bringing our attention from the abstract and chaotic world around us into a quiet awareness of our own internal state. Do these steps, one at a time:
- Let go of whatever problem you’re wrestling with for a minute.
- Notice how you are sitting, or standing; notice your shape. Straighten your back, letting your shoulders drop, and bringing your gaze up horizontally.
- Breathe, taking a couple of deep breaths and noticing how your chest rises and falls with each breath.
- Sense the pressure on the bottoms of your feet where the floor is pressing up, and, if you’re sitting, the pressure on your back and buttocks where the chair is holding you. Take a moment to feel this.
- Notice any places where your body is particularly tense, and simply let those places relax.
So, what happened? How is your inner state different? From this present state, what alternatives are revealed?
With even a little practice, this series of shifts in attention can take almost no time. Like counting to ten when you’re angry, it’s making the choice that is important. The simple act of choosing, in the middle of the urgency of your day, to stop and become present, is itself an act of resilience. (Another centering practice can be found here.)
Week Two: Discern Where You Have Control, and Where You Don’t
I, like many of you, get paid to solve problems. It is easy for me to move quickly into a complicated situation, and to see all the challenges and constraints that are inherent in the situation.
Here’s the problem. When we organize our attention around constraints, constraints are all we will see. We become immobilized when every course of action seems to lead to other problems. And, often, there is much in any given situation over which we don’t have control. The sum total of seemingly immutable facts can seem paralyzing.
So, it is critical to learn to differentiate what we have control over and what we don’t. In a given situation, it can be very helpful to actually list out, in two columns, what we don’t control and what we have some level of influence over. In the first column, we might list the sorry state of the economy, a boss’s attitude or behavior, institutional constraints, budget realities. In the latter column, we list things like our own attitude, the priorities that we set for the day, the particulars that we delegate to a team member, or an exploratory conversation with a possible ally.
When we discern the difference, we begin to relax around the givens that we have no control over. And, we begin to see that there are real actions that we can take that are, in fact, empowering. They are unlikely to solve the entire problem. Yet, they get us in motion and provide us with a sense of agency. We become more resourceful.
Practice this. Consider some situation that you face that seems intractable. Prepare a piece of paper with two columns titled “Out of My Control” and “Under My Influence.” Then, simply list as many factors as you can in both columns. See what possibilities are revealed through this discernment.
Week Three: Make Requests
I have coached many successful entrepreneurs and executives who struggle with their tendency to over-commit. These are people with rewarding jobs who love what they do, but who get exhausted and lose touch with themselves and their non-professional relationships, sometimes at tremendous personal cost.
Often, people like this (and I include myself!) don’t see the places where others could help. We have built strong identities as Doers or Problem-solvers that perpetuate our tendency to over-commit.
A key resilience strategy is to be in the business of making requests. I often work in depth with coaching clients around this important competency, which many successful people do poorly!
Requesting includes, but is much larger than, simply delegating tasks to others. When we make a request, it can be a request for a specific action, for a hamburger at a restaurant, for information, for someone else to take on part of what we’re doing, or a move into a different kind of relationship. We make the request by identifying what we need and when we need it. Then, we engage in a conversation with someone else about the request, such that this person can understand and deliver what we need.
As a resilience strategy, making requests is fundamental.
- In order to formulate a request we have to look at ourselves in our situation and discern what we need within it. That’s a significant move, and untangles us from the sometimes overwhelming nature of complex situations in which we can’t find any suitable course of action.
- Staying in action is central to resilience; making a request is a form of action. Whether or not the other person commits to delivering on our request, the act of requesting engages us with others and mobilizes energy, the antidotes to stuckness and overwhelm.
- Third, the result of a request, made clearly and fulfilled by the person we asked, is that we now have support, a hamburger, a service, or something else that we have identified as a need.
Work with this for a week. Note during the course of the day, when you make requests. Bring more intentionality into this process, recognizing that the request itself is a powerful act. Several times a day, take the time to clarify what you need in a situation, and formulate a specific request that you can make of someone, which, if fulfilled, will be helpful to you. Then, make the request and see what happens.
Week Four: Choose and Act from Purpose
The essence of resilience is making choices, in the moment, about what we focus our attention on and what we organize ourselves towards. This can, of course, be hugely challenging. At the same time, it is fundamental to building agency in our lives: the capacity for action, no matter the circumstance.
President Obama, in a fascinating 2004 interview, said that he frequently asks, “How does this connect with a larger sense of purpose?” He explained, “The most powerful political moments for me come when I feel like my actions are aligned with a certain truth. I can feel it. When I'm talking to a group and I'm saying something truthful, I can feel a power that comes out of those statements that is different than when I'm just being glib or clever.”
We can access a different feeling about a particular activity by connecting it to a larger sense of purpose. We can ask ourselves “For the sake of what am I doing this?”
For example, I generally don’t get excited about marketing. The message that you are reading has a marketing intention; hopefully readers like you will become interested in my work and we will develop a deeper relationship. Yet, my motivation and passion gets ignited by writing these little pieces for people that I know and care about, and who I believe will derive something of value that they can use in their lives. The real purpose for this is to support people in waking up, in the fullest sense, in their lives. If it generates business, of course, that’s great. However, first and foremost, I orient towards the purpose of accelerating the development of people in my network. Connecting the writing to that purpose is much more energizing for me, and is what allows me to produce this message (and coach leaders and even write whole books!)
Ask yourself this: For the sake of what are you doing what you’re doing? Find the purpose, deeper and more meaningful than the immediate goal, that a given activity serves. Connect the dots:
- “I am hiring a professional video producer in order to deliver this message in the most powerful possible way and make a tangible difference for viewers.” (That’s different from “keep me on track in the project.”)
- “I am exercising for the sake of feeling fully alive, energized and creative for my clients.” (Different from “losing weight.”)
- “I am letting my assistant go because she will be more fulfilled in a different job and I need a different level of support in order to do mine.” (Different from “she’s incompetent.”)
Experiment with this. Consider a current task or project with which you are struggling for motivation and focus. Describe, on paper if you wish, why you are doing it. Note the reasons… which reasons feel like “should’s?” Which reasons feel mobilizing and inspiring?
Now, organize your attention around the latter. Center yourself in those purposes, connecting, in your awareness, the activity to the purpose it serves. Note how your relationship to the activity changes as you connect it to purpose.
Week Five: Choose Your Perspective
Our perspectives are notoriously malleable and subjective, and what we consider to be truth is, upon investigation, rather elusive. Consider what a Fox News viewer and an NPR listener might say when asked about how we might best address the Iran issue! Or how you and a loved one can sometimes experience friction, each knowing that your interpretation of a difficult interaction is the inarguable truth!
Consider how your experience of a sculpture changes as you walk around it and view it from different angles. The sculpture itself is just there. Yet, our experience of it is shaped by our perspective. Two kids, each viewing a sign painted green on one side and red on the other, might have real trouble agreeing about what color it is, when both are actually right.
We can expand this notion to address non-physical things. On one given day, we might think “They can’t pay me enough to do this job!” The next day, we’re on a roll, and we think to ourselves “I can’t believe I actually get paid to do this!” Same job. Same us. Different perspective. And, different experience of self within the situation.
Resilient people recognize the power of perspective, and understand that they can actually choose a generative perspective on any situation. Viktor Frankl famously said, after spending years in a Nazi concentration camp, "The last of the human freedoms is to choose one's attitudes." Frankl’s resilience, derived from the internal locus of control that this wisdom represents, was instrumental in his inspiring survival of one of the most traumatic experiences that anyone could have.
Choose a situation that feels difficult, or energy-sapping. Now, list at least four or five different perspectives on this situation. (e.g., “It’s not fair.” “This is challenging me so that I have to develop new skills.” “It will be over soon.” “I have dealt with more difficult situations in the past.” “I have other resources that I can access in this….” You get the idea.)
Now, for each perspective, step into it as you would try on a new dress or shirt in the store. Try each perspective on and see what it feels like. Find specific, grounded evidence that this particular perspective is actually true. See that you can, by doing this, make any perspective the Truth about the situation, just as one kid saw red and the other green. See how grounding your perspective in solid evidence changes your experience of yourself in the situation.
Now, choose the most resilient, generative and liberating perspective and reside firmly in it, so that it becomes your felt experience, rather than simply an intellectual construct. Make it yours.
Week Six: Make an On-Going Commitment to Building Resilience
Most of us, at least most of the people that are reading this, are very willing to invest in learning particular competencies and capabilities that allow us to produce what we want in our lives. Too, most of us understand the importance of eating well, exercising, and taking care of ourselves.
However, for many, it is a new and revelatory way of thinking to recognize that resilience itself is a capacity that we can invest in, that we can build. Resilience is essential and pre-requisite for maintaining our focus, energy, and persistence in life. And, at the core, resilience is virtually synonymous with the self-generativity that produces aliveness, fulfillment and joy.
Thus, I differentiate resilience from a mere coping strategy, or a set of tools that allows us to endure more for longer. Rather, a commitment to resilience is in fact the entry point to a life-long pathway towards your own integrated development, including physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual components.
In saying this, I’m not assuming that’s what you were looking for when you decided to read this. Many people discover a need for resilience simply through a felt need to better manage what is on their plates. Yet, when we really move into it, and we commit to our resilience as an on-going project, we slowly wake up into all the possibilities that a committed practice of self-cultivation reveals.
So, now, you get to choose. Presumably, you’ve read the first five installments of this series. (If not, subscribe below for access.) Review them again. Remind yourself of which really spoke to you and opened something up. Choose perhaps two of these five strategies to really work with, and that complement each other.
Then, create a plan. Be specific and concrete. In your plan, address:
- What, specifically, will you do on a daily basis to work with that particular tool or practice? Weekly?
- What structure will you build into your already busy life so that this keeps your attention?
- For the sake of what are you doing this? How will you remind yourself of this?
- Who will you make a request of in order to support you and hold you accountable?
- What additional reading, coaching, or other resources will help you deepen your understanding of this and keep it fresh and evolving?
Notice your commitment. Is it firm and clear? Or, soft and gushy? If the latter, how can you mobilize your energy for this by re-orienting to your purpose for doing it? By being present with the real choice that it represents? By choosing a resilient perspective? By engaging someone else as a partner through making a request? By recognizing that, in a sea of commitments where you sometimes feel out of control, this is a place where you do have control?
Now, make it happen!