When we learn how to become resilient, we learn how to embrace the beautifully broad spectrum of the human experience
- Jaeda DeWalt
I discovered one of my favourite descriptions of resilience whilst doing some research. It’s an inspiring account of resilience written by a critical care nurse called Sonja M. Schwartzbach:
"And then resilience enters the room, the most elegant of emotional beings; glowing; refined; a reminder that even a flicker of light glows amid the darkness. And we can save our tiny ship of troubles from life’s stormy seas once again."
Resilience, in many ways, is an elegant, rich and inspiring topic. It is also an essential skill to cultivate, and our ability to be resilient to stress, setbacks, adversity and relentless change depends so much on our inner resources and strength.
So, what is resilience?
The word resilience derives from the Latin verb resilire, meaning to jump back or to recoil. In physics, resilience is the ability of an elastic material to absorb energy and release that energy as it springs back to its original shape. The recovery that occurs in this phenomenon is akin to a human being’s ability to bounce back after one of life’s various and inevitable challenges. Resilience is essentially the process of adapting and recovering well from adversity, trauma, tragedy or threats. Some people describe resilience as the ability to bend instead of breaking when experiencing pressure or the ability to persevere and adapt when faced with challenges. The same abilities also help us to be more open and willing to take on new opportunities
It is also essential to understand that resilience is not about ’toughing it out’ to the detriment of our own overall wellbeing. We need to acknowledge that as human beings we will of course have our own unique fragilities and vulnerabilities. Focusing on self-care and building a toolkit of positive and healthy coping mechanisms is one of the best ways to cultivate resilience.
Something else that I have learned about resilience is that the curve balls and challenges that life will inevitably throw at us, perversely, are often the most valuable lessons when it comes to learning about and building our ability to be resilient. As Theodore Roosevelt once remarked, "For those who have had to fight for it, life has truly a flavor the protected shall never know."
So how do leaders empower resilience?
I love a good parable, and this one is so powerful:
This is the story of a man who finds a butterfly cocoon and, as he has never witnessed the metamorphosis before, he is fascinated to see what happens. This, however, was in the days before the internet and all he has is a large magnifying glass.
As he examines the process, all he can see is the butterfly struggling to push through a tiny hole in the cocoon and it appears to be in discomfort. Seeing this he decides to help it out and gets hold of a pair of scissors and very carefully cuts into the side of the hole to make it bigger. The butterfly then emerges really easily with very little effort and then to the man’s dismay he watches as the butterfly withers away unable to take flight.
You see, with all the good will in the world, what the man did not realize was that the butterfly's struggle to get through the small opening of the cocoon is nature's way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight.
Just like the sapling which grows strong from being buffeted by the wind, in life we all need to struggle sometimes to make us stronger.
So, as a leader, you may well be tempted to solve every problem in your team’s path to save time or energy or avoid frustration. However, I would urge you to not get in the way of your team’s journey as they build up a sense of personal responsibility and self-efficacy. Allowing them to learn their own lessons and self-actualize is the key to empowerment.
When you allow people to take responsibility for their own actions, they learn to demonstrate accountability. By being accountable they will ultimately feel more empowered, confident and in control when dealing with setbacks and adversity. It is also liberating to allow your team to acknowledge and understand that they can ultimately create options and choose their responses to every situation.
So instead of jumping in and trying to solve all of your team’s challenges for them, work out how they are feeling about the challenges and focus on building up their confidence. Focus on supporting them to build their own unique resilience toolkit.
This is how great leaders can best support their teams to be truly empowered and resilient.
On the other side of a storm is the strength that comes from having navigated through it. Raise your sail and begin
-Gregory S. Williams