Resilience: Three Practices for Leaders

22/12/2014 7:56 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

At a college reunion, I met two friends after many years. They had worked for the same multinational bank for 15 years. The bank restructured their consumer banking business in India and the proverbial pink slip was handed over to both. One friend felt humiliated, stressed out and disgraced--almost bordering on mild depression. He decided to retire at the age of 50, and as his wife puts it "he retired unhappily and felt slighted by the bank". The other friend met the same fate but found a job in a medium-sized family-managed company and helped his wife establish a home business. He was beaming with confidence and said to me with a loud laughter, "LAU" (life as usual). The stark difference between how they dealt with job loss got me thinking about being resilient--the most important ability in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation.

We have seen resilient people in business, sports and cancer wards and we often wonder why some people can handle setbacks well and some people have a breakdown. There could be many reasons, but people who are good at handling setbacks have one quality in common: resilience. Factors like upbringing, education, social connections helps us in developing resilience, but I have a deep belief that resilience can be learnt. Anyone can learn resilience regardless of age, education or experience.

Resilience is, however, least understood by people, untaught at b-schools and unappreciated at work. Self-help gurus have put huge premium on positive attitude, optimism and commitment--these qualities are close cousins of resilience but they are not same as resilience. Resilience is the ability to persist in the face of adversity and "bounce back" from setbacks no matter how hopeless the situation seems.

Resilience is not a functional skill, like computing or driving, but rather a mental discipline that can be cultivated with practice. Resilience is more important than education, experience or the desire to excel. Resilience is unquestionably important for leaders. Whilst visioning helps leaders in seeing new horizons, resilience gives them tenacity to accomplish the vision. Learning resilience is a long process and needs deliberate practice. To build your resilience quotient, follow these three practices:

Practice 1: Nurture your social capital: Family, friends and colleagues are key relationships in our lives. Social scientists refer to our social networks as "social capital". Research has shown that people with strong social capital are happier and successful. You can get expertise, wisdom and emotional support on tap, if you build a strong network. Many of us are anxious about conflicts in relationships. Never fear conflicts--think of conflicts as part of human relationships rather than let-downs.

Practice 2: Learn Optimism: Optimism is better than pessimism. Optimistic people are happier and more productive than pessimistic people. According to Dr Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, optimistic people are less likely to develop what he calls "learned helplessness"--a state of mind where people have learned to see themselves as having no control over a situation. Seligman has also demonstrated that people can become more optimistic by challenging their negative thoughts by viewing things more optimistically.

Practice 3: Find meaning and purpose: Dr Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Psychiatrist, in his influential book Man's Search for Meaning, wrote about his experiences in concentration camps. Frankl observed that those who survived the longest in concentration camps were not the physically strongest but those who retained control over their environment. He argued that our main motivation in life is neither pleasure nor power but meaning. According to Frankl, we can find meaning by undertaking three things: doing our duty/job passionately, experiencing the world by interacting honestly with our environment, and choosing our attitude no matter how grim the situation is.

Developing resilience entails self-restraint, discipline and deliberate practice. Above all, intentionality to practice resilience is the key to success. My favourite quote by Dr Frankl is pertinent: "Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose".

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