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The resilience myth and successful leadership

Resilience has long been considered a key characteristic of successful leaders. In the tough times facing so many organisations today, it’s more important than ever.

But amid these unprecedented levels of uncertainty and challenge, myths persist around our understanding of resilience. At the same time, many of the espoused ways of developing resilient leaders are simply inadequate.

Firstly, there is little agreement as to what is meant by resilience. For some, it's just the latest buzzword for managing stress, while many describe it as the ability to 'bounce back' from adversity like Superman bouncing bullets off his chest. This kind of Superman quality is just that - something out of a fantasy comic. It suggests that resilient leaders don't let anything get to them, a reality perhaps only for psychopaths.

Real, human, resilience is more about remaining vulnerable enough to feel for and with others; being strong enough to live with uncertainty and ambiguity; and learning and growing rather than crumbling through adversity. If we are the same after adversity, we have missed an opportunity to develop character qualities that are not formed in easier times.

Secondly, many current approaches to building resilience have strong roots in the world of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Indeed, one of the great advances in recent years has been the mainstream acceptance of CBT as a 'talking therapy' in the treatment of mental health issues.

But CBT's influence has extended to other areas, too, and in the case of leadership, the concept of 'reprogramming' leaders' belief patterns has come to be a core aspect of many development programmes today. Techniques derived from CBT help individuals identify events that produce adverse reactions - looking for the underlying negative beliefs and thinking patterns and helping them rewrite such habitual responses. While CBT principles can be very useful, I don't think they go nearly far enough when it comes to developing resilient leaders.

Deeper questions need to be asked: questions that our fast-paced lives normally have no space for; questions that may be comfortable to ignore - at least in the short-term . But they are questions that bring perspective, and a sense of security, stability, focus and direction as we find answers to them. They are deep, even spiritual questions, concerning our identity, meaning and purpose: 'Who am I? Why am I? What difference do I want to make and to whom? What do I want to spend my life on?

In my experience of working with leaders, such questions help them define an identity beyond their work roles, a sense of meaning beyond the end of year results. In grappling with deep questions, a more distinct and resilient sense of self and a stronger leader has emerged. Sometimes this has led to dramatic changes in direction, sometimes just a better focus on what matters most. When 'doing more with less' is the management mantra of our age, it's time to get real, get human, and be bold enough to explore deep questions.

Perhaps then we will develop truly resilient leadership.

Adrian Lock, senior consultant at Roffey Park