In this crisis there are opportunities to get stronger.
18 September 2020

Personal resilience: an essential element for sustained leadership

The COVID-19 global pandemic may prove to be the greatest test of personal and professional resilience our generation will face, and for many, the challenge is far from over.
Roger Perry_Headshot

Roger Perry

Managing Director, Bevington Group

As leaders, improvements begin with ourselves. If our resilience deteriorates, our teams suffer.

This discussion of resilience is based on 30 years of interest in the field, many academic papers, and hundreds of conversations with senior executives on their coping strategies.

Much of the advice on resilience addresses four basics: exercise; diet; social contact; and rest (Gervais, 2020). Rather than dwelling on these essentials, as they are mostly self-evident, the importance of going easy on yourself is more pertinent.

Do not beat yourself up if you are less than perfect in implementing these four ‘basics’. You do not need perfection, just try to get a little better as time goes on. Remember that pursuing perfection is a form of madness you can’t afford (as it makes you more stressed!).

Rest for the stress

While it’s great advice to rest, this can be difficult when you feel that you are in the midst of a storm. Consider the psychological practice of compartmentalisation: the idea being that you do not worry all the time, but schedule specific times to “worry”. Sounds odd, but this approach frees up your mind from constant anxiety.

Similarly, having a notepad by your bed so that you can write down concerns or ideas, frees you up for better sleep. Other leaders have discovered the benefits of meditation. This is a very pragmatic activity, as it can leave you feeling more energised and refreshed, a little bit like you have had a sleep during the day. You can get started with a guided meditation, many of which can be readily found online.

The theme of ‘rest’ can lead us to other useful perspectives, particularly those of the contemporary business philosopher, Taleb (2012). He tells us that if we embrace our stress, yet ensure we get some rest – we can get stronger. Whether you are exercising your body, your mind or your willpower, stress followed by rest will enhance your resilience.

In fact, Taleb argues that it will make you “antifragile”, whereby you are not just able to maintain your level of functioning (a definition of resilience) but that you become a better human being for your experiences.

So, in this crisis there are opportunities to get stronger.

By perceiving that, with intermittent rest, your difficulties make you stronger, you are “reframing” your situation. This in turn will help you achieve a more balanced emotional state.

A different perspective

This concept of “reframing” is far from new. It is one of humanity’s most tried and tested approaches to dealing with long-term stress. It was used by the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers known as stoics. In this period of history, death and disaster could be just around the corner for any citizen of Athens or Rome. They coped by accepting the reality of their situation and interpreting their challenges as opportunities for character growth.

Modern stoics, such as Ryan Holiday (2014) have argued that you can choose to think differently about your problems. Indeed, Holiday has proposed that the “obstacle is the way”. In other words, we need the difficulties we face in life to the be the best humans we can possibly be. Leadership researchers Bennis and Thomas (2018) picked up on this “obstacle” theme when they wrote about the “Crucibles of Leadership”.

Their proposition is that the best characteristics of many leaders were formed in their most difficult experiences. After hard times we can come out the other side as stronger, more resilient, and possibly more adaptive. It is a form of the famous quote “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” (Nietzsche, 1888).

This stoic philosophy was utilised by some of the most resilient human beings in history because it has other deeply practical disciplines.

For example, Admiral James Stockdale was a senior U.S. pilot and practicing stoic, who was taken prisoner during the Vietnam war. He was tortured both mentally and physically, but never lost hope.

In doing so he applied another fundamental stoic discipline – he did not worry or concern himself with matters he could not control. He managed his own mental space because it was the only element over which he had some control, and the only space where it was harder for the prison guards to get to him.

Leading by example

The advice “to only focus on what you can control” is incredibly valuable for us today. Doing so can remove a great deal of diffuse anxiety about our future. Hence you should stay focused on what you can influence and let the rest go. It is a recipe for staying sane in a crisis.

To be able to lead your teams, you need to have your own mental house in order. This means following the basics of exercise, diet, social contact, and rest. However, you should not beat yourself up about an imperfect performance. It means finding helpful tools to allow rest, such as compartmentalisation.

It also means changing the way you think about the situation are in. If you see the stress as an opportunity to develop, if you understand that hard times might be your “crucible”, and if you can only worry about what you can influence or control - then it may help you reduce your background stress.

Remember that looking after yourself is a duty of leadership. Keeping in good mental shape is best for your loved ones, your teams, and your businesses. So, use this time to become an even better version of yourself. 

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