The perfect time to master resilience

by Hayat Chedid

When the news of the coronavirus started to become a part of the daily cycle in February, we collectively tried to avoid thinking about it becoming a reality for us and preferred to see it as the news from a faraway Wuhan. We kept business as usual and tried not to face the feelings that might have been triggered. We took the approach of pretending it would not happen to us, followed by fear, anger, blame and anything that keeps us away from going through the pain of the unknown. Although the current crisis presents exceptional challenges, resilience and possibly super-resilience offers scale-up leaders the best chance of a meaningful response.

Resilience: Moving forward, no turning back

Resilience has been studied by many scientific disciplines, from psychology, sociology, organizational studies to neuroscience, biology and philosophy, so there are many definitions. One of the most thought provoking definitions was formulated by dr. Rachel Yehuda, a neuroscientist and a specialist in post-traumatic stress. In her words, resilience is “the process of moving forwards and not returning back; the process of reintegration of the self to move forward in an insightful, positive manner”. Resilience doesn’t mean the evasion or absence of pain, doubt, or fear. Quite the contrary, it starts by acknowledging those and moving forwards despite these emotions and preferably powered by them.

The most common models of resilience look at it from the perspective of four dimensions  seen as pillars: mental flexibility, emotional awareness, physical health and endurance, and social support. Although this is insightful, we find it more helpful to understand the trajectory and process of resilience to offer leaders empowering means to move forward without returning back.

Resilience Framework

The framework above links resilience to learning, which consequently leads to  adaptation and evolution. Resilience is not being stuck in reactions that lead to regression (blame, anger, denial, etc.), nor is it a recovery to come back to the same state or persistency to just keep plodding forward. Instead, it is the process that unstacks us and enables us to move from adversity to learning, from pain to transcendence, from crisis to creation.

Resilience vs. Persistence

What is the difference between persistence and resilience and how can scale-up leaders ensure they are on the resilient path?

Persistence is when one can maintain a behavior and a trajectory despite frustration, pain and hardship. This quality is persistently demonstrated by entrepreneurial leaders. As a scale-up CEO, you need to be comfortable with a degree of risk and lots of push back, as well as be able to rely on a great deal of personal energy and confidence. Most founders, innovators and entrepreneurial leaders develop and master persistency.

Persistence and resilience have some similarities: the ability to remain independent from risk factors and fear of negative consequences, to take charge and be self-determined, and to align to your values. But resilience also has some unique characteristics; the ability to have insights especially with regards to one’s own vulnerability ; the ability to form and maintain healthy personal and professional relationships through the crisis, the creativity needed to generate new options and scenarios, and the capacity to maintain humor and playfulness. 

Vulnerability, connectivity, creativity and playfulness are equally important for organizational and leadership resilience. The capability to acknowledge the emotional journey whilst still in motion, enhances connection and volunteered support and playfulness and humor, gives us the needed lightness and creativity to healthily go through hardship and crises.

The great news is that resilience is something that scale-up CEOs and their teams can work on. Not unlike strengthening our muscles, developing resilience needs conscious and persistent training. We need insights to recognize our inner, relationship and organizational patterns, and a great deal of conscious discipline to create new ones.

how to scale

“Playfulness and humour give us the needed lightness and creativity to healthily go through hardship and crises.”

Winter landscape with skaters, Hendrick Avercamp, c. 1608

How to build super-resilience

What if we could transform hardship into superpower? According to Dr. Gregg Steinberg, “Super-resilience is the process of moving from tragedy to transcendence”. He described this process in five steps that might be helpful for scale-up CEOs. They might be used as an instrument in assessing whether you are engaged in a resilient journey or are still stuck. Additionally, they can inform your conscious actions into rewiring new personal, team and organizational patterns.

  • The first step is a wake-up call: the moment when leaders acknowledge the need to change. This is a time of insight, a time preceded by an emotional rollercoaster that goes from denial, anger, sadness and letting go to finally accepting the change imperative. The wake-up call is a precise moment of acknowledgement. It might have taken you a long time to get there, and perhaps others saw it earlier, but now that you see it, you see it.
  • The second step is flipping the switch: the time when leaders find a purpose in the adversity or crisis they face. Flipping the switch is instantaneous: as a leader you feel the responsibility to take on this adversity.
  • The third step includes harnessing the organizational and leadership creativity. As a resilient leader, you know that only by working together you might find a way out of the crisis. Resilient leaders therefore first engage the people around them. This is a step that takes time to make everyone see and feel the need for change. It is a phase of persuasive storytelling.
  • At the fourth step you need to develop a new path matching with the purpose in the adversity you encountered. This step also requires time as your path needs to be discovered through trial and adaptation.
  • At the last step, you find the (sweet) spot in which your energy combined with the energy of your team attracts the attention of your customers. The final step is a moment of walking out of the thick forest, when the light brightens and we start seeing a new horizon. It is the experience of this final step – finding the new sweet spot – that forms us as resilient leaders, imprints in us the belief that it is possible to renew ourselves through crisis and the capacity to do so.

Based on these steps, you can assess and drive your own journey towards building (super)resilience through reflecting with the following questions:

  1. What do you think and feel about the current crisis? Do you consider it a wake-up call? Do you feel the need for change?
  2. Is this your leadership call? Are you called to confront this adversity? What makes you think and feel that?
  3. How are you engaging your team and unleashing their learning and growth? What are the creative and playful spaces you and your team have developed?
  4. What are your attitudes and behaviors in times of hardship? What can help you move forward despite your fears?

Resilience is a part of human trajectory. Our responses to life events are at their best when we are on its path. However, it is not a given. Only those few who have experienced repetitive hardships and learned to transcend the limits of what they knew, are prepared well. Luckily, we can work on it right now: the current crisis requires us to do that at an unprecedented scale. Who knows, this might well be the crisis that teaches us collectively its wisdom.