Revel Gordon, Director, International Coach Federation Australasia
It is often impossible to predict the challenges a leader will face on any given day, let alone weeks or months into the future. In this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) reality, personal resilience is one of the most powerful capabilities executives need in order to succeed. Fortunately, resilience – the capacity to deal with and bounce back from challenges – is a developable capability. Here are some practical and evidence-based ways to do so.
Accept that change and disruption are the ‘new normal’.
The first step in building resilience is to recognise and accept that things are unpredictable, and that the rate of change we face is only going to increase. Rather than wishing things would ‘settle down’ or be less chaotic, effective leaders embrace uncertainty and focus on becoming expert at navigating shifting terrain. By accepting we live in a VUCA world and that some things will be outside our control, leaders are able to then refocus on what they can control: how they react to challenges as they arise.
Resilience is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets
Resilence is the capacity to bounce back – and indeed bounce-forward – from challenges and setbacks. It was originally thought that psychological resilience was a ‘special’ trait only possessed by rare ‘superhumans’, and was beyond the capability of most of us. Yet more than seventy years of research, starting with Emmy Werner’s epic longitudinal study in Hawaii, has show that this is not the case at all. We all have resilience within us, and just like exercising a muscle at the gym, the more we use our resilience, the more resilient we get.
Leaders who consciously place themselves in challenging – yet safe-to-fail – situations, start to become increasingly comfortable with being uncomfortable, and so are able to make better decisions under stress and rebound faster from setbacks. On the other hand, leaders who constantly seek to play it safe and avoid challenging situations, do not develop their natural level of resilience, and will tend to be less able to respond effectively when things don’t go to plan.
Putting this into practice
Here is a simple way to put this into practice: identify an area that you think would genuinely help your development as a leader. If you’re not sure what this might be, consider asking your team or trusted colleagues, or carry out a 360 or psychometric instrument. Next, think of an opportunity to challenge yourself in that area. You should aim for something that takes you out of your comfort zone, but where you are still confident you can succeed. Most importantly, the consequences of failure should not be severe. For example, if you’re a recently-appointed CEO who is not comfortable interacting with the media but who wants to improve that skill, you might set an initial goal of preparing for and then having a low-key interview with a ‘friendly’ journalist from a trade or second tier publication. You would probably not want to schedule that initial interview with a hard-hitting finance journalist at a high-profile business publication, where the downside of flubbing the interview would be significant.
As you prepare for the challenge, think about how you can scaffold yourself to further improve your chances of success. In the media interview example, you might decide to engage a public speaking coach or PR agency to help you prepare. Depending on the situation, you might ask for the questions in advance so you can carefully think through your planned responses.
Track your stress
A technique that is particularly helpful when preparing for any high-stress situation is to think in advance about how stressed you’re likely to be at key steps along the way, rated out of 10 (zero is no stress, 10 is maximum stress). Then, as you actually reach each point in the process, quickly check in to see how stressed you actually are. For example, you might have predicted that as you enter room for the media interview, your stress levels will be around an 8/10. If that is how you actually feel in that moment, you can say to yourself “Yep, this is pretty much how I thought I’d feel.” This normalising process won’t make the stress go away completely, but it will take the edge off it. You’ll probably find that your 8/10 immediately comes down to a 6 or a 7.
Then, once you’ve actually completed the challenge, reflect on how you went. What worked? What didn’t? What might you do differently next time? Is there someone you trust who can give constructive feedback?
By consciously putting yourself in a situation where you are just outside your comfort zone, you will become more comfortable in that place over time. I’m writing this on a plane on my way home after skiing in Japan, and the parallels are clear: to improve your skiing, you can’t simply ski the same easy runs over and over. You need to find new runs that are just a bit steeper or narrower or bumpier, and challenge yourself to get down them. Do this a few times, and you’ll find runs that once made you nervous will seem like a piece of cake! The same applies when building resilience.
Mindfulness and resilience
Mindfulness is one of the most effective ways to build resilience, and is part of the daily routines of leaders seeking a performance edge, ranging from corporate CEOs to elite athletes. Think of this as going to the gym, but for your mind. It’s about improving capacity to notice your thoughts, feelings and physical state, in the moment, and without judgement; and then being able to consciously redirect your attention back to where you want it. In the context of resilience, it is the ability to consciously direct your attention to the task at hand in the face of challenges and setbacks.
There are many, many mindfulness apps out there. Consider downloading a few and trying them out. Five minutes of practice two to three times per day is an ideal way to start. Do this consistently for a month, and notice how you feel after each practice. Note, mindfulness practice is challenging: your mind will wander. That’s the point. The practice is noticing when this happens and gently (and without negatively judging yourself) choosing to bring your mind back to whatever the exercise is. Over time, you will find that your mind wanders less and less, has less of an impact on you when it does, and that you are able to return your focus to the task at hand more quickly and easily, including when you face setbacks or when things don’t go to plan.
Physical exercise, diet and rest
Of all the things you can do to improve resilience, nothing is more important than getting enough sleep, and related to this, developing healthier habits around diet and exercise. Aim for progress, not perfection. You don’t need to be an elite athlete, nor should you necessarily force yourself onto a kale and quinoa diet. But making sure you get adequate sleep – for most people that’s around 7-8 hours per night – and looking for ways to improve your diet and incorporate at least two to three workouts per week of at least moderate intensity, you will be building the physical and mental platform to support greater resilience.
Leaders today faced ever-increasing levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In this reality, increasing personal resilience is one of the most effective ways to improve leadership performance. All leaders face setbacks and challenges, and the capacity to bounce back from these is a developable skill. There are many different ways to do this, including consciously pushing yourself outside your comfort zone so that you start to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Practicing mindfulness, and putting in place healthy sleep, diet and exercise regimes are some of the most effective and evidence-based techniques to increase resilience. Time spent on any or all of these is time wisely invested.
About the Author
Revel Gordon is a Sydney-based executive coach and leadership expert. He is also a Director of the International Coach Federation Australasia.