From Brittle to Nimble:
Leading for Resilience
by Geoff Urton
During the Great Recession just over a decade ago, business leaders began emphasizing the new normal of frequent disruption facing nearly every sector. Managers throughout the org chart shared the pressure of needing to do more with less, speaking wistfully of the days of role redundancies. Economists proposed that the historic ebb and flow of disruption and stability had been irrevocably altered, leading to a new era of constant disruption. Change management and agility rocketed to the top of core competencies as organizations baked them into their leadership principles and business systems. It was a modern rise of resilience.
To some, the challenges of the Great Recession may seem somewhat trivial now given the upheaval of our way of life presented by COVID-19 and the measures used to fight its spread over the past two years. The Great Recession may have equipped us for the current crisis, though, creating the necessity to develop new competencies in leading ourselves, our families, and our businesses through unpredictable change. Much like a child learning new developmental abilities in succession, every challenge offers the opportunity to gain new competencies that equip us to handle future circumstances and solve the next problems. This is resilience.
According to organizational resilience experts, Timothy Vogus and Kathleen Sutcliffe, businesses that have proven resilient over time consistently show three qualities: humility, learning, and attunement1. These nimble organizations plan for the best and prepare for the worst, not relying too heavily on past success to predict future outcomes. They apply their intellectual, cultural, and financial resources to cope with and learn from unexpected events. Finally, they attune themselves to the environment, relentlessly seeking feedback and applying it in the desire to improve.
We may also be able to strengthen the ability of dedicated individuals to sustain their efforts by supporting their psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. According to the model of intrinsic motivation described by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in their self-determination theory, people generally desire a say, “value learning,” and want to connect.2,3
When these psychological needs are not met, poor mental health, weak performance and higher turnover have been documented among employees. By contrast, employees who report fulfillment of these intrinsic motivations show stronger performance, greater well-being, higher retention, and better policy compliance, with lower interpersonal conflict and emotional burnout.4.
As leaders, our ability to establish these attributes in our teams relies on our own understanding of resilience. By default, we often think of resilience as toughness. Reflect for a moment on the image that first comes to mind when saying the word resilience. I see a man in a trench coat brandishing a black umbrella like a shield against an onslaught of horizontal rain. This represents a steadfast bracing for impact – a determination not to give in. Determination may well be an essential factor in one’s ability to succeed through adversity, providing the required energy to maintain one’s commitment to one’s work through obstacles and setbacks. However, determination alone can prove brittle in the long run. How long might it take before the umbrella’s material yields to the storm’s assault, or for the hands gripping its handle to fatigue?
Resilience goes deeper, requiring devotion – a commitment to something bigger than oneself. Devotion transcends a determined survival instinct, tapping into the greater motivation produced by values or an inspiring vision for the future. A determined mindset and a devoted heart provide the fuel required to see oneself, or one’s community, through a major challenge. And yet, while determination and devotion are both necessary qualities to resile, alone, they are insufficient.
Despite the role of grit in overcoming challenge, resilience is not synonymous with toughness, determination, or devotion. The term originates from the Latin resilire, meaning ‘to leap back’, much as a flexible metal returns to its original form after compression. For a person or an organization, it is the ability to cope and thrive through adversity. Resilience requires flexibility and the ability to adapt. However, it would also be a mistake to synonymize resilience with softness. An accommodating approach that only makes concessions to one’s environment is wobbly, lacking direction.
Neither rigid nor lax, resilience requires something different. It takes a devoted commitment to the reason for one’s efforts – a compelling vision or a devoted value – and the adaptability to change one’s methods to thrive in a new environment. This is how both determination and adaptability can co-exist. There is a Zen-like quality to this competency. The game is to at once hold both a mindset of singular determination for your goal and an attitude of adaptability for how best to accomplish it.
Resilient leadership is the endeavour of a sailboat tacking upwind, its pilot engaged in the seemingly impossible task of moving forward into a wind blowing against them toward an objective beyond. With every switchback, they may lose some ground, from which they must rebound. To accomplish this feat, the sailor is mindfully attuned to the information coming at them – the wind on the sail, the feel of the boat – and adjusts the tiller, the trim of the sails, and their body position based on this feedback. With determination and adaptation, they eventually prevail.
Leaders devoted to supporting our organizations and our people through adversity succeed through a resilient mindset of determination and adaptability. We create an attuned culture of humility and learning in our organizations, and we tap into the intrinsic motivations of our people by supporting their opportunities for autonomy, learning, and connection. As we each engage in our own upwind tack, we leap back from each necessary change in direction, creating the conditions for our people and our organizations to grow and thrive. This is the endeavour we are called for now as leaders together in our journey onward through the storm.
3 Meyer, J. P., Stanley, D. J., Herscovitch, L., & Topolnytsky, L. (2002). Affective, Continuance, and Normative Commitment to the Organization: A Meta-analysis of Antecedents, Correlates, and Consequences. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 61(1), 20–52.
4 Meyer, J. P., Stanley, L. J., & Parfyonova, N. M. (2012). Employee commitment in context: The nature and implication of commitment profiles. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 80(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2011.07.002
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