Resilience: How to build your own survival strategy

Gill Corkindale

A few months ago I was lucky enough to work with someone who really understood resilience. Atef was one of a small group of international leaders I was coaching in London. On the first day, by way of introductions, I had asked them to describe their roles, their current business issues and a little about their backgrounds.

Atef spoke last. A senior vice-president in an American bank, he described the challenges he was facing with his team and in his business. The story of relentless pressure, change projects, long hours and difficult people was a familiar one. But after a few minutes, the story took a different and unusual direction.

With little emotion, he described his early life growing up in the West Bank. 
A Palestinian, he had no proper education, health service or even a nation-state. At 15, his father had died, leaving him — the eldest son — to support his family. He took whatever work he could find, on building sites, as a waiter and driving taxis. Somehow, he managed to scrape together enough money to educate himself and, at the age of 20, won a scholarship to an American school. After graduating, he took a lowly job in a bank and worked his way up into increasingly senior roles. His hard work was rewarded with promotion and, at the age of 35, the bank sponsored his MBA at an elite business school.

We all listened attentively as he recounted story after story of how he had coped with danger and deprivation and how he had ultimately survived and prospered with very little support. He described how the lessons of his early life left him stronger, more vigilant and determined to make a success of his life, whatever the threat or disruptive change. He was balanced, assured and disciplined, with a great energy and passion for life.

I have no doubt that Atef will survive whatever life throws at him. The financial crisis may force his bank to restructure – he may even lose his job and have to start all over again. But I am certain that he will cope – and he may well prosper. Why? Because the lessons he learned early in life taught him how to be resilient.

Resilience is emerging as the seminal skill for leaders as more economies slide towards recession. The American Psychological Association, which has studied resilience closely since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, defines it as the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, and from sources of stress such as work pressures, health, family or relationship problems.

A resilient person is not only able to handle such experiences in the moment, but also to bounce back afterward.
 The good news is that leaders can develop resilience by managing their thoughts, behaviours and actions. The Road to Resilience, the APA’s guide to developing individual resilience, sets out 10 steps which every leader should take time to study:

  1. Develop supportive and caring relationships at home, among friends and colleagues. Accept help and support and help others when they need it.
  2. Remember that some crises are beyond your control. You can’t change events but you can change the way you interpret and react to them. Try to accept this and look ahead.
  3. Accept that change is part of life and that you will have to adapt to changing circumstances.
  4. Set some realistic goals and take regular small steps towards achieving them. Ask yourself, “What’s the one thing I can accomplish today?” rather than focusing on the overarching goal.
  5. Be decisive. Do as much as you can rather than avoiding problems and hoping they will go away.
  6. Try to understand your own experiences of dealing with loss, hardship or emotional problems. Appreciate what you have learned from these events.
  7. Develop a positive view about yourself and be confident in your strengths and abilities.
  8. Try to take a longer-term perspective and don’t blow the significance of the event out of proportion.
  9. Stay hopeful and optimistic. Visualise what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear. 
  10. Look after yourself – your health, fitness and need for relaxation and peace. This will give you the strength and balance to deal with difficult situations.

Another useful port of call is The Hardiness Institute, which offers leaders an easy online hardiness test to assess their levels of resilience. The institute is based on the work of Dr Salvatore R. Maddi of the University of Chicago who carried out a landmark study of Illinois Bell Telephone (IBT) in the 1970s-80s. Dr Maddi wanted to find out why some people stayed well even during the stress of a major downsizing programme. They discovered that the most resilient people held three key beliefs, known as the three C’s:

  • Commitment: they strived to be involved in events rather than feeling isolated.
  • Control: they tried to control outcomes, rather than lapse into passivity and powerlessness.
  • Challenge: they viewed stressful changes (whether positive or negative) as opportunities for new learning.

Positive psychology is a powerful tool to develop resilience. Authors Andrew Shatte and Karen Reivich used research from a 15-year study for their book, The Resilience Factor, which details seven key steps to building resilience based on positive thinking.

Here in the UK, we are beginning to build the skills of resilience early in life by using positive thinking. This month, the University of Bath began an 18-month trial on positive thinking for 7000 teenagers in British schools. Teenagers will be taught to acknowledge their personal strengths, identify negative thought processes and develop problem-solving skills. Perhaps these ideas will soon be brought into the business world where they are equally useful, especially for many younger employees who have no experience or understanding of the challenges of recession.

What are your views on resilience? Do you agree that it is a quality leaders need to develop more than ever before? Is it simply the result of experience or do you think it can be learned? And do you have any stories – or advice – to share with other leaders on how to build a personal resilience strategy?

Source: Harvard Business Review