What do we mean by resilience? A conversation with a CEO

March 12, 2021

Resilience. There’s a topic that’s had loads of airtime over the last year. How resilient are you? How do you improve your resilience? I wrote about it myself just a few months ago. But what do we really mean by resilience – and might some definitions actually be unhelpful?

This month’s blog was inspired by a conversation with an experienced CEO and non-exec director, Andrew Manning, who contacted me as he has a particular interest in resilience. It’s a little different from my usual posts in that it takes the form of a conversation where we explore the topic.

Caroline – Andrew, you’ve been in leadership roles for decades, often in challenging circumstances, how have you thought about resilience?

Andrew – Like a lot of people, I’ve tended to think about resilience in terms of being tough and strong; stress-proof, if you like. I thought it was important to be able to withstand the pressures of a leadership role.

C – That sounds fair enough. In the model of leadership I work with, one of the key tasks of leadership is coping with pressure. There’s a degree of scrutiny, responsibility and pressure that comes with any leadership role, surely?

A – There is, and leaders need to be able to handle that pressure, but I’ve come to realise it’s how they handle it that matters. Thinking of resilience as toughness can lead to a macho attitude and unfortunate terminology like ‘man up’, which may be the last thing someone wants to hear when they’re under a lot of pressure.

“We all have a breaking point”

A – Think of a load-bearing joist in a house. You can make the joist stronger so it can bear more weight, but it will still have a breaking point because everything does. If it reaches that point it may break with spectacular consequences.

C – So using that analogy, strategies to increase your resilience equate to strengthening the joist. Things like eating healthily, getting enough sleep, staying fit, mindfulness, rest and relaxation – all these help people to withstand pressure.

A – They do. I think they are important but they’re still all about strengthening the individual and in the end that’s only part of the picture. We can’t just keep trying to make individuals stronger because, ultimately, everyone has a breaking point and an organisation is only as strong as its weakest link.

C – I guess the load-bearing joist analogy encourages quite a macho attitude to stress – “I have to be strong and bear this load” type of thing. It’s all very heroic but there’s not a lot of space for doubt and vulnerability.

A – Exactly. I’ve had times in my career when I felt under huge pressure and wondered whether I could cope with it but didn’t feel able to show any weakness. In reality, sometimes just talking about it helps. You often find that the load isn’t as heavy as you thought it was. And, to change the analogy, sometimes you just need to let off steam, like a safety valve to stop a steam engine exploding.

C – That’s certainly a role I play for my clients at times and I’m sure other coaches would say the same. It’s about giving people space to talk about their frustrations, fears, and doubts without judging them or giving false reassurance that it will be OK. There’s a vulnerability to it that’s a far cry from the kind of heroic, Superman myth of a leader but we’re dealing with real people here, not cartoon characters. We all have our vulnerabilities.

“Spread the load”

A – That’s certainly what I’ve come to realise. I did sometimes heroically struggle on with things for too long on my own when it would have been better to ask for help. That’s another thing I think we get wrong in thinking about resilience. We should be thinking about how we share and spread the load instead of just how we withstand it. That’s how a load-bearing joist works – it seeks to spread the load to avoid collapse.

C – That’s interesting. When I wrote about delegation a few years ago, I mentioned that I frequently come across managers who are happy to delegate tasks but reluctant to delegate any of the pressure, as if they have to carry the burden alone or perhaps fear doing something which would make them unpopular.

A –  It’s a difficult balance. But the truth is that in any team, and any organisation, everyone is sharing some of the load. It is about supporting one another so everyone is able to bear an appropriate share, and recognising that collectively you are stronger. 

Of course, there are other ways to spread the load, not just delegating. You can ask other departments or partner organisations, outsource some work, or recruit more people. And sometimes, the right thing to do is to reduce the load, not just spread it.

C – Blimey, to some people that will sound like heresy! You mean it’s not always a leader’s job to just keep pushing through, growth at all costs, ever evolving?

A – No, it’s not. Sometimes it’s appropriate to slow down and consolidate. An organisation can’t run at full stretch all the time. 

“The importance of pace”

C – Actually, I agree with you there. For both individuals and organisations, there’s only so long you can keep pushing ahead whether that’s driving for results or embarking on personal or organisational change. At some point, you have to stop, rest and regroup else you risk burnout.

A –  A lot of my career has been about transforming organisations and I’ve certainly been guilty of trying to take on too many change projects simultaneously or in quick succession. ‘Change fatigue’ is definitely a risk and I have learnt that sometimes the wisest thing is actually to put some change projects on pause or extend them, to let the organisation catch its breath. Of course, there are times when you have to push on but “tempo” is not always about “allegro”.

C – I think pace is an often-overlooked area in organisations. People focus on what they need to do, not how quickly they need to do it. I’m sure we’ve all come across projects that seem to take forever, usually because they haven’t been given a high enough priority. They’re generally seen as the problem projects but the over ambitious, rushed projects are just as big a problem. It’s one of the things I always look out for when I assess people whose personality profiles suggest optimism, risk taking, drive, and huge ambition. These people can be absolutely amazing, and they can also exhaust an organisation by trying to change everything too quickly.

A – Yes, I’ve met some of them! I may have been one of them. I think there will be a lot of organisations coming out of the pandemic which have either been running at full tilt or constantly in survival mode and will need a period of stability to recuperate. The NHS is the most obvious example, where many people must be utterly exhausted by now.

C – We haven’t mentioned the pandemic up to now. What do you think the past 12 months have taught us about resilience?

“Flexibility not strength”

A – I think all the stuff about individual resilience has come into sharper focus. It seems to be more acceptable to say that you’re struggling, for example. But it’s made me think about resilience in a different way. Instead of instead of using metaphors around strength I prefer to think of resilience in terms of flexibility. For example, in strong winds a very rigid, ‘strong’ tree is more likely to snap, whereas the tree which bends with the wind is more resilient, going with it rather than resisting.

C – It sounds like adaptability is a key part of resilience for you then. I’d agree with that. It’s better to deal with the world as it actually is, rather than as we think it should be, but we don’t always do that, do we?

A – No, we don’t.

C – So in summary then, we create resilient organisations by working out how we equip ourselves, individually and collectively, and support each other, to meet the needs of the organisation. But also keep reviewing those needs and the pace of the organisation to ensure we’re not overstretching people and the organisation itself.  

A – Or more succinctly,  perhaps think of resilience as elasticity, “bounce back ability” not toughness.

C – So no more heroic leaders then.

A – Maybe think of “heroic” leaders as those who can admit to and deal with vulnerability and uncertainty, and support their colleagues and organisations to do the same.  

If you’d like to discuss resilience in your organisation, I’d be delighted to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Sign up to my monthly blog mailing list.

One Comment

  1. romantik69.co.il April 3, 2022 at 10:55 pm - Reply

    Very nice write-up. I definitely appreciate this site. Thanks!

Leave A Comment