I am an itinerate problem solver.  I walk into organizations in various roles to solve various kinds of problems.  Not uncommonly when I walk around a new organization I notice things like “No Whining” signs.   Over time, I’ve come to see the density of those signs in an organization as a signal indicator of a stressful environment.  The signs, however, don’t necessarily make the whining go away.

We hear much in the business management and leadership literature today about the need for agility and resiliency.  There is much cloudiness, for many of us, about what it actually means to be resilient.  A number of times I’ve worked with people who have faced remarkably challenging circumstances and even vicious person attacks and intentional, protracted, strategic undermining by their colleagues, superiors, and direct reports.  And, then, twenty-four hours later or a few days later, I’ve noticed they’ve bounced back, perhaps with greater resolve, but sometimes with mere equanimity or renewed optimism.

Not everyone responds this way to real or perceived threats.  We might attribute the ability to “keep calm and carry on” to a nurturing childhood or a good strong marriage.  But, that’s not the case for everyone.  And, when we consider our roles as leaders in organizations, consideration of positive and productive resiliency in the face of real or perceived threat is part of the picture.  The practice of Pervasive Leadership summarizes to:

• Change your mental model of I and Thou.

• Act locally; think holistically.

• Enact empathetic stewardship.

Within the notion of the first precept is the notion that we are mutually co-arising.  To some extent, we create each other—and generally more than we expect, appreciate, or initially believe possible.  For example, if I come to the table as a victim, it’s not unlikely that you come as a potential aggressor.  We are opponents before we begin to know each other and our common goals and interests.

Within the second precept is an awareness that what we do locally—in our own lives, our own projects, our own cities, affects the lives, projects, and cities, for instance, around us.  So, each project leader, whatever their title—including those in individual contributor roles on teams—impacts the whole project and each project effects the whole organization.

Within the third precept is the notion of our collective needs for survival and thrivance—the allocation of the organizations resources to meet the goals of its constituents. These constituents, in organizations such as for-profit businesses, non-profit organizations, and public agencies, for the purposes of this level of conversation, are assumed to be in alignment with the organization.  We are each a potential asset to the organization and need to be good stewards of our own efforts and ability to contribute.

All three precepts point to a need to cultivate resilience, which is not the same thing as simply not “whining.”  We need to cultivate a capacity to “resile” or be resilient so that we can lead well.  As Winston Churchill put it, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”  In other words, those who lead will find people around them who oppose the direction they are leading in, even if that leadership is something as local as setting a good example of behavior and attitude.  The ability to bounce back from offense, attack, harsh criticism, or a failure that hurts is a key skill on the part of all leaders.

But–how to do it?  The key is in the previous paragraph:  cultivate a capacity to resile, or bounce back.  You must come to know what feeds you.  And it will be as important to know what feeds you outside of the workplace as much or more than what feeds you within your career.  A strategic retreat is also a strategy and can be very fruitfully used to make forward progress.

This is not the same thing as “licking your wounds,” though there may be some aspect of that.  It is knowing the practices that will heal you and allow you to go forward without breaking.  For those of us who learned early to drive harder when the going gets rough, this is a tough lesson to learn.

So, here are some examples of simple practices:  many people will turn to mindfulness practices such as various forms of meditation.  Knitting, by the way, is one such meditative practice, though we’re talking about knitting done in a mindful manner with focus on the stitches and sensory aspects of the yarn, the needles, and the resulting fabric.  For a long time, while working on a difficult project some years ago, I would wake up early every day to knit for a bit before I went to work and end each day by knitting for a while before going to bed.  It helped.

Other things that help me bounce back are playing with my dog or cat, whose world views include little value for the nonsense that preoccupies we humans.  Watching the hummingbirds at the various feeders around my garden works wonders.  I keep several feeders out in the summer and have one on my office window that is up year around as there are hummingbirds year around in my garden—even during the blizzard we had a few years ago.  I find these birds remarkably inspiring.  Certain kinds of reading helps.  Taking a walk with a friend helps.  Hot rock massage helps, and I owe much to my massage therapist.  My garden is also a sanctuary; getting in the dirt and kneeling among the flowers creates a space in which nothing gets to me until I come out again.

And, ironically, over the years, I have come to find timed naps remarkably helpful.  I was not a napper for most of my adult life.  My sister taught me this skill when I was working with offshore teams.  She has a dog who is so attuned to her practice that when she says “Let’s take 20 minutes,” he heads directly for his bed.  I also find certain kinds of music very helpful in the “bouncing back” process.  Last night at a concert of one of my favorite a cappella groups, I was newly grateful for their skill as I noticed how refreshed I was after a particularly difficult day.

Learn to think of your resiliency as an immune system.  Without it, you are likely to cave in to the pressures that life’s onslaughts bring to you.

You will come to know what works best for you.  But, it’s important to become clear about what your list of “tools” is before you need them.  And, it’s true, that many of us have such demanding work contexts that having a regular practice that builds our capacity to bounce back, or resile, is essential.  Because, to one extent or another, we have to bounce back every day.

  • Renay Jeune, PhD

    Great article! I particularly like the perspective regarding empathetic leadership, and recognizing the collective needs (that it is not just a ‘me’ mentality) subject to collective contribution. The ability to bounce back from adversity and face the new challenges that come our way is influenced by many factors – cognition, personality, social interactions/relationships, etc. You provide a good many examples regarding strategies to strengthen a resilient nature, and they have a common theme: extricate from from the challenge, explore alternative experiences, and re-engage. The more we successfully hone these ‘resiliency’ skills, the better we become at managing through the challenges.

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