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Building resilience from within

By Dr Ido van der Heijden

Resilience is a highly desirable quality in a manager. Life, as we know, is full of surprises, and nowhere is this truer than in the world of business. And, by definition, those in a position of leadership need more resilience than most, because they are the individuals ultimately responsible for directing the organisation’s response to the unexpected.

That said, resilience is difficult to teach. In large part that’s because it is an inner quality, an inner strength arrived at through experience and understanding, coupled to self-belief and determination. It is one thing to understand what resilience is, and quite another to acquire that resilience.

And yet, acquiring resilience has never been more important. Today’s world, as most of us recognise, is increasingly characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity—collectively summed up by the acronym ‘VUCA’—and if there’s one quality that VUCA environments call for, it’s resilience.

Old approaches won’t work

The challenge for managers is that a lot of traditional business thinking and teaching isn’t geared to a VUCA environment. Many of our leaders in organisations have been taught business tools, models of thinking, and leadership approaches based on decades of research into non VUCA problems.

Moreover, leading in a VUCA environment challenges many of our learned assumptions about the way that organisations and the leaders within them operate. Instead of providing clarity and certainty, leadership in a VUCA context may mean helping the organisation to be comfortable with fluidity, aiming for the ‘least wrong’ solution—the option that leaves the most doors and opportunities open.

And finally, technology is fuelling VUCA itself: adding to the volatility, and uncertainty, and increasing the complexity and ambiguity. An organisational crisis can be in the world’s in-box before the organisation’s senior leadership have been formally informed of it.

No time for ‘L’ plates

The quandary is simply stated. At the very juncture at which resilience has never been more important, the conditions for acquiring it have rarely been less propitious.

No novice boxer will learn much from taking on a world-class heavyweight for their first bout. A sailor practices in calmer coastal waters before heading across the oceans. Air Force pilots move through progressively more challenging trainers before taking on a front line fighter.

And yet... business leaders must practice resilience in real organisations, addressing real problems, dealing with real constraints—and facing very real consequences if they fail.

What’s to be done?

For inner strength, look within

At Cranfield School of Management’s Praxis Centre for Leadership Development, we have found that resilience is something that emerges not just from what you think, but also how you feel, appreciate, understand, conceptualise, and process your environment.

Put another way, helping people to feel more secure within themselves is the key to helping them achieve a more authentic and real sense of self belief, coupled to a clearer understanding of their environment, and how they relate to it.

And from this robust groundwork emerges the confidence to deal with the paradoxes that exist within a VUCA world, and the unique leadership challenges that it presents. Research has shown time and again that helping people to know what to do is quite straightforward. But helping them to have the courage to do it, and the resilience to do it—and when the paradoxes are in front of them in the real world, and not in the classroom—is what lies at the heart of the difference between leadership in name, and leadership in practice.

Developing the foundation

The world is difficult and it is messy. And when dealing with the challenges that we face, it is always tempting to reach for easy, external answers—whether this is learning new theory or knowledge, or seeking solutions in different ideas or techniques.

But for resilience, especially in a VUCA context, this is generally wrong. The answer isn’t new knowledge, but instead lies in new thinking, and new perspectives.

Environments may be complex, but so too are people. The truth is that there is a myriad of ways in which leadership can be developed for enhancing resilience. But almost always, the foundation stones lie within.



Tags: Cranfield School of Management, leadership, talent, praxis centre for leadership development