I have spent most of my adult life studying this concept called leadership and know within every fiber of my being that effective and healthy leadership, while elusive for many of us, is so incredibly essential to the vitality and success of an organization, team, church or even family for that matter.
Equally important is the concept of resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to grow and thrive in the face of challenges and while bouncing back from adversity, even flourish in the face of those challenges. Leaders affect and inflect others through their words and behaviors. How wonderful it is for a leader, through their personal example, to positively influence and affect those they lead and serve to be more capable of thriving in the face of great challenges and able to not only survive difficulty and adversity but because of it, become stronger, more confident, positive, hopeful, and determined to achieve greater success in life. I am reminded of the prophetic words of Ernest Hemingway who wrote: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Why is this topic so important and relevant today?
If you work in almost any industry these days, too many of us feel like we are in personal, organizational, and cultural storms. I could go on and on about the challenges and conditions that define working in America today, but I will highlight a few in order to set the stage for leadership resiliency:
• We live in work environments characterized by high volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity
• We often hear consistent messages of overload and over work while continually being asked to do more with less
• We are bombarded by Information and overloaded by too many initiatives; It seems that we are “Always on” and faced with far too many competing priorities
• And it is extremely difficult not to have feelings of anxiety and at even worse, helplessness, cynicism and frustration – a vicious, downward spiral
• We know that there are far too many people experiencing burnout, depression, cynicism, and feelings of helplessness and deep frustration.
On top of these demands and challenges, we as a society are not doing well:
• Depression rates today are 12 times higher than they were in 1960;
• Fifty years ago the average age of depression was 29.5; Today it is 14.5;
• We know the devastation of the Opioid epidemic, which has replaced heart disease as the greatest killer of American adults today
• In 1940, 75% of Americans reported being “very satisfied”; today that number has dropped to below 65% with a strong, downward trend;
• A 2017 survey by the American College Health Association reported that 52% of college students had strong feelings of hopeless; 39% suffered from such severe depression that they found it difficult to function at some point during the previous year --
• In a recent study by Cigna in 2017, 1/3 of Americans reported chronic loneliness. David Brooks in the New Yorker wrote recently in a column, “America is suffering a crisis of connection.”
• We as a society are not doing well despite all we know about health and well-being and many of us don’t have a knowing problem; we have a doing problem; and hopefully, I can make the case that besides a doing problem, we have a being problem in regards to creating a remarkable life of meaning, joy, happiness and wellbeing.
Thankfully all this “bad news” has awakened many companies and organizations across our country as leaders have made the improvement of employee wellness a key strategic objective to achieve.
The timing perhaps could not be better as I believe that all of this adversity and difficulty has given us much greater clarity as to the adversity and difficulty of our future lives. I don’t wish struggle on anyone and yet I believe that to be human brings with it immense struggle as people we love leave us much too soon; stock markets rise and fall; loved ones get sick and depressed; and storms, fires and floods often don’t care how much wealth you have. Even Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, can’t seem to escape relationship trials and tribulations.
Developing greater resilience is a key enabler of maintaining physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing in the face of all that struggle. And, as you pass from one struggle to another, resilience deepens our ability to take on even harder and more difficult things in our future. What is most exciting for me is that research and science are informing us that resilience can be taught, developed and cultivated and I am very excited to share the tools, skills and habits that lead to building deeper resilience.
As I have gotten deeper into the study and teaching of resilience, I found myself drawn back to a time early in my professional life when I first got interested in how human beings could overcome immense struggle in their lives and actually used the great struggle to help them lead more meaningful and successful lives. When I was a 19-year old cadet at West Point, I was selected to attend the Naval Academy as an exchange cadet for a full semester in the Fall of 1979. At the time there were several senior Naval Leaders at the Naval Academy who had been pilots during the Vietnam conflict and were shot down, captured and endured several years of torture and harsh treatment at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors. I had several opportunities to meet these extraordinary senior leaders and hear them reflect on their experiences. What stood out for me was that they all shared that despite how difficult their experiences, their time of captivity was a period of immense growth in their lives and became a springboard when they were released to go on and live more remarkable and highly productive lives.
As this group of men were extensively studied upon their return to the United States, we know that less than 4% of these men suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder while it is estimated that over 30% of Vietnam Veterans suffered/and still suffer from PSTD. What happened in these men’s lives that propelled them to positive growth and resiliency for the rest of their lives? What they went through is reflected in a marvelous concept within the study of resilience coined “post-traumatic growth” (PTG) by two UNC Professors and Psychologists, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid 1990s. Although they coined the term PTG, the idea that human beings can be changed by their encounters with extremely difficult challenges, sometimes in radically positive ways, is not new. The theme is present in ancient spiritual and religious traditions, literature, and philosophy. What IS reasonably new is the systematic study of this phenomenon by psychologists, social workers, counselors, and scholars in other traditions of clinical practice and scientific investigation.
What this exploration has taught us is that resiliency and PTG tend to occur in five general areas. Sometimes people who must face major life crises develop a sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle, opening up possibilities that were not present before. A second area is a change in relationships with others. Some people experience closer relationships with some specific people, and they can also experience an increased empathy especially for others who suffer. A third area of possible change is an increased sense of one’s own strength – “if I lived through that, I know I can overcome other hardships and difficulties”. A fourth aspect experienced by some is a greater appreciation for life in general and the fifth area involves the spiritual domain. Some individuals experience a deepening of their spiritual lives to include a significant change in one’s belief system.
As a young man I am not sure I was in tune with seeing all of these five areas of growth in these remarkable men, but I vividly remember that I thought these leaders had a wisdom and enlightenment that was uncommon and quite inspiring. I remember saying to myself that I hope I didn’t have to go through being captured and tortured for me to experience the growth, strength and wisdom that these men did. I didn’t realize back then that I would be driven to look for another way and I am here to say to anyone who will listen, that there are practices, tools and habits that will greatly help and support the building of resilience and PTG and that these can and must be applied to helping us stay healthy and happy in service to others.
Scientific research has confirmed that resiliency can be learned and built through a set of core competencies that enable mental toughness, optimal performance, strong leadership, and goal achievement.
Those core competencies are:
Utilizing Strengths of Character
Building Deeper Connections
Much akin to the emotional intelligence revolution, we know for certain that these competencies can be taught, learned and practiced. And we now know that when we develop greater resilience, the outcomes on individual, team and organizational wellbeing is incredible, as resilience:
• Helps us develop better protection and inoculation against experiences which could be overwhelming.
• Provides us with more balance in our lives during difficult or stressful periods of time.
• Reduces the use of risk-taking behaviors such as excessive drinking, smoking, or use of drugs.
• Increases involvement in community or family activities.
• Lowers the rate of mortality and increases physical health and wellbeing.
Not long ago, I heard a talk from a woman who spoke powerfully about the challenges of raising children and that her default in raising twin 3-year olds was to teach them compassion and resilience. She said something profound regarding resilience that has really stayed with me. She actually wanted her sons to struggle and overcome difficult things early in their lives so that later when they encounter even greater difficulties, they can say to themselves, “I can do hard things.” Some of the most unhappy and miserable people I know are those who have let some tragedy and difficulty define who they are and remain stuck there.
This quality of being able to stand in the storm without becoming part of the storm certainly is an important quality for having and sustaining a remarkable life. So, let’s dig more deeply into this wonderful quality of resilience.
Before I get into describing what each of us can do to build resilience, let me first talk about what resilience isn’t. One the great pioneers in resilience has been Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman is often called the “Father of Positive Psychology”. As the President of the American Psychological Association, he challenged his colleagues to take an alternative look at the field of psychology and wondered how the field could be furthered, not by another study of the broken and abnormal people but perhaps, by studying those who were frequently positive, happy, optimistic and joyful. That started an amazing renaissance in psychology that continues today. Approximately 10 years ago, Seligman convinced the Army that soldiers, before and after they deployed to combat, could greatly benefit from applying many of the scientific insights and evidence that the field of positive psychology produced and he had the good sense to name these insights and skills, resilience. The US Army trained well over a million soldiers in these resilience skills and one of the many key learnings was to separate myth from fact. Here are a few:
Never show emotion
Focus on the Individual
Equip the soldier to handle everything on their own
Always act fast and demonstrate superhuman feats
Always be fully composed
You either have it or you don’t
It’s a destination
Regulate and manage emotion
Focus and build support for the individual, their relationships and communities
Provide them the tools and confidence to ask for help and show vulnerability
Have the insight to know when to modulate performance and slow down to include rest and recover
Sometimes it is not very pretty
Everyone can learn and develop it
It’s a process and journey
Let’s take the competencies of self-awareness and self-regulation. There is a beautiful line, sometimes attributed to the Talmud, the central text of Judaism, that states, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.” When our emotions get triggered by fight or flight, protect and defend, or we just get lazy, we lose our capacity to think well and to view other possibilities or other points of view. Teaching others the ability to have greater self-awareness to recognize the patterns and hot buttons that may trigger a less than optimal response and in turn having the self-regulation to choose a better, more positive and constructive response, is foundational to resilience.
One of the greatest books ever written on this was “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Holocaust survivor and Psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, who expressed in his writing the following sentiment, ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space lies the freedom to choose and in that freedom to choose lies our power.’
Friendships, marriages, teams, and relationships are often broken by things said in anger, contempt and judgment. If a person could just see the space between some activating event and work to be more thoughtful in their response, they may get completely different and much better outcomes. When we face difficult things, slowing down and better managing our thinking may allow us to see that the difficult things may indeed be opportunities for growth, development and even greater success. This is resilience at its very best.
As I deepened my study of the field of resiliency, the importance of habit became more and more important as a means to fortify a person’s resilience, especially when they faced overwhelming situations and high stress. Just the other day, a client of mine shared that he had a health scare that probably stemmed from working far too many 16-hour days without taking appropriate rest and recovery. He had neglected wellness practices such as exercise, quiet reflection, and meditation and even forgot to eat breakfast and lunch. He admitted that by the time he left work, he was exhausted, famished, and often made bad eating choices which in turn caused him to sleep poorly. When morning came, he was too exhausted to do anything but drag himself to work. I would like to believe that I was helpful in getting him to take the health scare as a wakeup call where he needed to make regular exercise and healthy eating good habits that could be sustained.
The research and evidence just continues to keep pouring in that when we build habits around seven practices, we create this incredible upward spiral that equips us to stand strong in life’s struggles and storms and in turn helps us build even greater strength for whatever struggle and difficulty will come our way.
The seven habits are:
1) Living with Purpose and Meaning
2) Cultivating Positive Emotions
3) Deepening Our Social Bonds
4) Reflecting and Expressing Gratitude and Appreciation
5) Promoting Hope and Optimism
6) Being Mindful
7) Get and Keep Moving
Let me provide a bit more clarity about each Habit:
1) Living with Purpose and Meaning:
Core questions for us to explore and answer:
• When am I feeling most alive, excited, and passionate?
• What is my Big and Mighty “WHY” to get up every day for?
• Can I provide a clear articulation of my legacy when I have left this planet?
• What is my True North that keeps me directed even in the midst of storms and calamities in my life?
2) Cultivating Positive Emotions:
Ways to build this include:
• Charting our Positive Experiences - Reflecting on at least 3-5 positive experiences per day. “Hunting for the Good”
• Remembering Happy Days - Remembering happy life events and attempting to replay them in one’s mind to prolong and reinforce positive emotions.
• Keeping a Savoring Album - Take a picture of something of beauty you encounter and write a short description of what you found to be beautiful about it.
A recent study conducted by The Alternative Board suggests that cultivating positive emotions may increase your leadership effectiveness as perceived by others. Hundreds of entrepreneurs across the world identified positivity as what made leaders most effective. Positivity beat out passion, decisive and personable, among others.
3) Deeping Our Social Bonds:
The evidence could not be clearer that the more friends and the more love in your life, the less illness. George Vaillant was the 3rd Research Director of the famous Harvard study entitled: “The Harvard Study of Adult Development” that continues to focus on understanding the human journey of 724 men that started in 1938. It is the longest longitudinal study of adult males in history. Vaillant found that people who have at least one person whom they would be comfortable calling at three in the morning to tell their troubles were healthier. John Cacioppo found that lonely people are markedly less healthy than sociable people. In an experiment, participants read a script over the phone to strangers—reading in either a depressed voice or a cheerful voice. The strangers hang up on the pessimist sooner than on the optimist. The study overwhelmingly supports this idea that our lives depend on relationships. Happy people have richer social networks than unhappy people and social connectedness contributes to a lack of disability as we age. Misery may love company, but company does not love misery, and the ensuing loneliness of pessimists may be a path to illness. The Harvard Study continues to inform us that it is not fame, fortune, or education that is the best predictor of achieving a remarkable life. What Vaillant described as the “X” factor was indeed one’s ability to build and sustain deep intimate relationships.
Self-protection and mistrust prevent us from reaching out to neighbors and peers. And we consequently feel like we don’t truly belong anywhere. To form the bonds that eventually solidify into long-lasting friendships, we must first be willing to rise above the walls of suspicion and doubt dividing us from the individuals who inhabit our neighborhood, block, or our building. We are taught from childhood to fear those we do not know, but community is as much a part of survival as safety. When we take a proactive approach, we can harmoniously unite our neighbors and build a network of support that contributes to the well-being of all involved.
The key elements of deepening our social bonds are:
a) Nurturing Relationships - Connect with others who have played an important part of your life. https://youtu.be/gREsym-SOe8
b) Showing Vulnerability and Support: Have the courage to be vulnerable and opening yourself up to the support, help and insight of others.
c) Demonstrating Acts of Kindness - Extend an act of random or intentional kindness to others……."Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness."— from Leo Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World's Sacred Texts
The power of being completely present to another is embodied in this statement pulled from the website of SSM, a not-for-profit health system, regarding the “healing power of presence”:
"Taking time to listen, learn, and understand patients is at the heart of everything we do. We know people are not meant to be alone. We are meant to be there for each other to bond... to love, connect, console, and celebrate family, friends, and future. We are meant to share each other's joys and comfort each other's sorrows."
4) Reflecting and Expressing Gratitude:
Researchers have found that gratitude serves as a “booster shot” for romantic relationships. People tend to experience higher gratitude on days when their partner does something thoughtful for them, and such gratitude predicts elevated relationship quality the next day. In fact, when one partner experiences elevated gratitude on a given day, both partners experience positive relationship outcomes. In the long run, people who experience elevated levels of gratitude also experience stronger relationship commitment and are less likely to break up. Psychologists Shelly Gable and Harry Reis observe that social support is about much more than helping each other through hard times. These scholars have built a program of research demonstrating the power of delighting in good news together. In particular, communicating with our partner about personal positive events—that is, engaging in capitalization attempts—is linked to positive emotions and mental health, beyond any effect of the events themselves. Such capitalization attempts are also linked to greater feelings of trust, intimacy, and satisfaction in the relationship.
To cultivate this habit, research tell us to do these things at least daily:
a) Gratitude Journal - Write down 3-5 things for which you are currently thankful, from the mundane to the magnificent. Do this daily. Challenge yourself to “hunt for the good” in your life as it is everywhere.
b) Expressing Gratitude and Appreciation - Think of someone whom you owe a debt of gratitude and express your appreciation in concrete terms through a hand written note or in a face-to-face encounter.
5) Promoting Hope and Optimism in our Lives:
a) Your Best Possible Self: Reflect and write down what you expect your life to be like a few years from now. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. You are incredibly healthy, happy and joyful. See it. Feel it. Think it. Dream it. Act towards it.
b) Your Best Possible Day: Imagine what a great day looks like for you tomorrow. Describe it as vividly as possible, perhaps in half hour chunks of time. See yourself happy, joyful, enthusiastic, positive and resilient.