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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:

  1. Self-awareness

  2. Self-regulation

  3. Promoting Optimism

  4. Maintaining

  5. Mental Agility

  6. Utilizing Strengths of Character

  7. 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.