Steel & Tissue Paper: Resilient Leadership

Resilience is the process of having a productive response in the face of adversity, trauma or a significant source of stress and change. Although we love a good story of people who endured unimaginable circumstances and rose above them, resilience is a fairly ordinary survival and adaptation mechanism we’ve been gifted with. In my practice of helping leaders through personal and professional crises, I have come to understand that resilience is partially cultivated in childhood and can be further developed in adulthood.

The confusing nature of resilience was best captured several years ago by a mentor named Dennis Stranges. He said to me, “We are all made of steel and tissue paper. We are indestructible in some ways and totally vulnerable in others.” Emotionally speaking, this is quite true. I’ve watched leaders endure life’s tragedies in stride, but lose control of themselves with the slightest notion of disrespect at work. Steel and tissue paper.
Because resilience begins as a child, it’s worth noting how it all starts. The most common characteristics that predispose us to higher levels of resilience as children are: the availability of a stable adult caregiver, a sense of mastery over our life circumstances, skilled self-regulation, and a supportive, affirming faith or cultural tradition11• Take an entire workforce into consideration and you’ll have quite the range of resilience considering no one’s childhood was perfect in this regard.
In my executive coaching practice, I’ve· been asked plenty of times, “Why is that some people just can’t handle it?” In other words, why do some have an unproductive response to change? My answer is usually, “They haven’t been supported enough in their life to know that they can handle it.” The leader asking the question usually softens, and empathy begins to replace judgment. As empathy settles in, the conversation changes. What could have been a careless “get over it” attitude with a team member becomes a “how are you doing?” conversation.
We often can’t help our initial judgment because we want things to be exactly the way we envision them. We compare others to ourselves, assuming we’d be handling it more productively. We tell ourselves “it’s so simple” and “they don’t get it.” When we are stuck in this reactive mindset, we do little but create destructive emotional distance between us and our employees.
As leaders, we simply cannot demand that others be made of steel when we want them to be, but we can hope to inspire strength and resilience even if our employees are starting at tissue paper. Just because we are adults now does not change the fact that even at work, we need connection, support, and a sense of belonging. We need these elements to be productive, but also to persevere through personal and professional challenges, whether they be sweeping regulations, death, protocol changes, or tragedy. We are better with authentic connection to a leader. Innately, people will look to the leader when the bad, frustrating, or scary thing happens. They do this because we are a critical source of confidence and inspiration. We are the centerpiece of workplace resilience.
To some leaders, the idea of this kind of psychological and emotional leadership may sound daunting. But, cultivating resilience in our work culture is little more than being caring, responsive, and curious when things go wrong. It sounds sad, but I’ve encountered volumes of organizations that send a clear message to their employees: “We don’t have time for emotions.” Unsurprisingly, employees in those environments struggle and worry in isolation that they simply cannot handle it. We’ve all been in ‘that place where we are lost in our mind and lost in our hope. That kind of isolation is a miserable place, but caring, responsiveness, and curiosity are the relational antidote that we can provide.
It’s hard to imagine that we could have the time to connect and relate to our employees this way. Yet, like anything, emotional intelligence is a skill. The ability to connect authentically in meaningful ways when people look to us is something that we can cultivate for ourselves. Largely, what we tell ourselves in our own mind dictates how much bandwidth we have for these kinds of meaningful intersections at work. Meaning, if we tell ourselves we do not have the capacity or time, we will act accordingly. Assume you do have the time and then make time each day to engage.
When thinking about preparedness for all of the many things that can go wrong, remember that a plan is good, but so is responsiveness. A plan is meant to be executed, but responsiveness is meant to be adaptive to changing conditions and inclusive of others. We are being resilient when we are being responsive. In creating a more resilient culture, consider yourself the gardener, planting seeds of confidence and resilience. You are regularly offering people assurance that they have what it takes to persevere, simply because you’ve chosen to believe that they have the strength. You will change minds, just as you’ve changed your own. And when change happens, as it inevitably will, your team will be ready to face and overcome any challenges in their way.

Daniel Stover, M.A.

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Founder & CEO of Ensight Partners

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