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The Road to Resilience: Failure, Recovery, and Recovery Again

Tuesday, November 19, 2019
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It would be an understatement to suggest that leaders face significant challenges in today’s complex world. Consider the tasks of balancing a strategic focus on mission and vision, ensuring organizational growth, and staying abreast of the latest industry trends. Additionally, leaders must navigate change, make sound decisions, and nurture organizational environments marked by engagement and innovation.

And sometimes we fail.

Failure has a unique status in American society and the human psyche. From an early age, we are reminded of the importance of succeeding and not failing. We dreaded the feared F on a paper when we were in school. We are conditioned not to accept failure but to succeed at all costs. In the workplace, failure is often accompanied by an admonishment not to let it happen again, followed by a written report ensuring corrective action. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson famously asks leaders to consider how many failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy compared to failures that are simply treated as blameworthy. Unfortunately, we excel in the latter. Indeed, our obsession with failure is significant.

When we err as leaders—and we do—we face all the organizational and cultural implications of failure. This is precisely when we must turn to our own resilience.

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Resilience is a crucial trait among leaders. It allows us to maintain a balanced perspective even when the complex world around us swirls mercilessly. Resilience allows for better decision making, sustained personal growth, and the ability to bounce back with fierce resolve.

Snyder and Lopez, in their 2002 Handbook of Positive Psychology, suggest that resilience is one of four capacities that make up one’s psychological capital. In addition to hope, optimism, and self-efficacy, resilience rounds out the productive capacities of human beings that allow them to thrive and grow. When leaders are resilient, they become more adaptable and are able to assess situations from unique perspectives. This opens up avenues to decisions that might have been hidden before. Resilient leaders also exhibit extraordinary confidence. Not only are they willing to admit mistakes and grow, they are self-assured that they will ultimately be successful.

The good news is we all have an inherent resilience. The bad news is that some struggle to tap into resilience when conditions warrant. Consider asking yourself these questions:

  • Do I worry about asking others for help when I need it?
  • Do I get needlessly sidetracked when I encounter difficulty in an assignment?
  • Do I struggle with change and uncertainty?
  • Do I get down on myself?
  • Do I learn from my mistakes, or do I allow them to bog me down?
  • Do I get stressed easily?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, you may have just uncovered a pathway to building more resilience. But how does one get there. The secrets are quite simple.

  • Be Authentic: How many times have we seen this in recent leadership literature? Authenticity is the foundation for not only understanding self but also being able to connect readily with others. Yet still, finding our authentic self can, at times, be challenging. It requires us to expose some of our most vulnerable weaknesses.
  • Opt for a Learning Mind: Unfortunately, when we fail, we sometimes slip into neurological survival mode. This is perfectly natural but not terribly productive. By adopting a learning mindset, resilient leaders are able to grow from failure by seeking out new information and pathways forward.
  • Don’t Go at It Alone. Resilient leaders know better than others that it is not possible to go solo. Today’s world has far too much complexity and speed of change to allow such an endeavor. Build strong social and professional networks and take comfort in seeking advice.

Resiliency is not for the faint of heart. It requires resolve, courage, and risk-taking—and far from the historically negative vibe to which it has been linked.

About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

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