By Eileen McDargh
Consider some events of this decade: The stock market gyrates with unpredictable and heartburning results. Icons of solid companies become straw figures before balance sheets. Children are abducted from their front yards and networks of terrorists spiral throughout the world. Religious institutions cast shadows of duplicity while El Nino brings strange fish to the California coasts. Out-of-control fires gulp huge swaths of Texas and Colorado. Tornadoes rip through the Midwest and South. A tsunami of apocalyptic proportions devastates the northeast coast of Japan.
It’s enough to cause all of us to stand like the proverbial “deer in headlights”, mutter “the sky is falling”, or else spring into action. The latter would be fine but it’s often a knee-jerk response based on what we’ve done in the past. The trouble is that the present doesn’t look like the past.
Whether you’re leading a Fortune 100 company, a small department, or an enterprise of one – whether you are trying to reinvent your career, launch a new product, or juggle the demands of aging parents and children, resiliency skills have never been more important: radical resiliency.
First: Define the terms. Throw the dictionary definition away. In 1824, Webster defined resilience as: “the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.” That definition works for explaining metal but not for the mettle of the human system or an organization. This very definition gives rise to the popular two-word definition: “Bounce back.”
No! Not! Never! Going back to an original state might feel comfortable but it denies the very opportunity of personal and organizational growth. In a constantly changing world, returning to old habits, old structures, and old behaviors can actually be counter-productive.
Second, Webster’s very definition implies that resilience is needed only in the time of stress, of crisis or a bad situation. Not so.
I define resilience as: “The capability to grow through adversity or opportunity so that one becomes wiser, stronger and better able to create a sustainable future.” Now, throw in the word “radical” which means extreme. “Extreme” resiliency means one is willing to turn right when everyone else turns left. It implies courage, tenacity, and taking the uncharted course. For an individual, it also means listening deeply to one’s inner voice rather than the chorus that surrounds you.
Second: Develop the skill of adaptability. Adaptability is predicated on finding multiple responses to any given situation. It is foundational for resilience and literally rests upon our ability to challenge old ways of doing things, to actively seek different viewpoints, to beware of sacred cows, and to know that solutions can come from anywhere or anyone.
Adaptability requires one to challenge common knowledge. The critical questions are: Why? What if? Who said so?
When a leader and his or her followers begin to ask why something happens a specific way and dig at least five layers down, many startling discoveries can be made. For example, years ago Ameritech had an employee who spent 3 full days a month creating an extensive report for wide distribution. Then the question was asked, “Why are we doing this?” “Who reads it?” They discovered that few read it and of the ones who did, only a few pages were relevant.
Courage comes into play when we own up to our own reluctance to look for personal and professional blind spots. The very person we don’t want to listen to might be the very person with that one critical idea. Might I suggest that leaders look for guide dogs. Guide dogs lead the blind safely through many life situations and often, despite the owner’s insistence, refuse to do certain things because the guide dog senses danger. In short, the guide dog is the one who really SEES what is going on. Every organization has people on the ground, people who “see” what is happening. Unfortunately, management can be too removed to even consider asking for input. I spoke to an operator at a steel plant who was just weeks from retirement. He had many ideas to improve the plant but said management was not interested in talking to him.
Adaptability also requires a change of heart, an ability to work on intelligent optimism, reframing what is possible rather than what is impossible. For example, a road crew drilling through a mountain discovered a fresh water spring, such an occurrence can wreck havoc in trying to complete the road. However, this company decided to divert the spring and now sells bottled water while, at the same time, completing the road. That’s reframing.
Pauline just lost her husband Bill, a brilliant nuclear physicist, who could not even form coherent sentences because of the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Pauline’s comment was, “At least he is at peace and his brilliant brain might offer some clues for researchers.” Reframing.
Adaptability is about thinking and feeling. Agility, on the other hand, is about action and movement.
Third: Develop the skill of agility. Agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. It implies nimbleness, flexibility and speed. It is one thing to intellectually create multiple actions. It is another thing to move forward. Action is the antidote for anxiety.
The trick is to move wisely. Analysis paralysis might take over. Instead, the resilient individual and organization figures what small steps can gain a foothold. There’s ample feedback while actions are taken. Rewards center on the willingness to act, to take risks, and to share results.
Action also looks at physical action. In short, care of the human body. Exercise, sleep, nutrition demand attention in growing through challenge or opportunity. Sometimes, the greatest step one can take is to sleep. Refreshed, the mind has a better chance at being creative and innovative.
Sometimes, when faced with a feeling of powerlessness, doing anything that gives a sense of control can be immensely beneficial. One woman, when fired from her job of 30 years, created a network group at her church for people looking for work. Another company, caught in the grip of the recession, pulled employees together to explore how costs could be cut without cutting people. Some employees volunteered to work part time so that those with less financial resources could continue.
Fourth: Develop the skill of laugh-ability. Victor Borge said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” It is also the shortest distance between your brain and your body. The ability to find humor and generate a sense of playfulness actually increases creativity. Laughter separates the serious from the trivial, the trite from the tremendous.
Recall the Chilean mine disaster. Against all odds, these men survived, adaptability (multiple rescue methods and listening to many experts) and agility were paramount. And they also employed laugh-ability, or at least a way to keep a sense of humor about this very serious predicament. When a camera was lowered into the mine, one miner gave a tour of their “home”, showing a table where they played cards and held meetings. At the end of the video, the trapped men burst into a hearty rendition of the national anthem. In short, the men took control where they could, added some spirit to the horror of being trapped, and – as a waiting world discovered, kept everyone alive until rescue.
Play belongs in the realm of laugh-ability. It was the jester of old who spoke the truth in a non-threatening way by using humor and play. Free-form play and improvisation not only break barriers but open up a world of potential ways to handle situations.
“Play is the exultation of the possible” – Martin Buber.
Fifth: Develop the skill of alignment. In 2008, I trekked a portion of the remote western Indian Himalayas, visiting villages as well as ancient monasteries. These still-standing structures, looking fragile in a terrain of rock and stone scoured by wind, rain and snows, have survived because of one thing: they are built on bedrock. The main buildings are lined up on the strongest part of the mountain.
To remain standing, humans too need bedrock. As Viktor Frankel stated, “Man can survive any what if he has a why.” Resilient people and individuals have a reason greater than themselves for keeping on. Whether a child to raise, a song to sing, a book to write, or a community to protect, there is a sense that something or someone matters. That alignment guides adaptability.
Sixth: Look for what energizes. Lastly, the current that flows through all these skills is human energy. Energy is the result of meaningful connections that add the spark of potential and possibility, the catalyst for forward momentum. Think of this as a DNA molecule in which energy is the thread that weaves through all four skills and, in turn, generates more energy as it crosses.
Since 1980, Hall of Fame speaker Eileen McDargh has helped Fortune 100 companies as well as individuals create connections that count and conversations that matter. Executive Excellence ranks her among the top 100 thought-leaders in leadership development. Looking for help with work and life challenges?