As a college dean who began my position on March 1, 2020, and then closed all in-person activities 13 days later, I’m often asked to comment on the topic of resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to recover from traumatic or cumulative stresses. Early research on resilience emphasized the role of genetics – as in “some people are just born resilient.” However, more recent research shows that some people become more resilient over their lifetimes – suggesting that there are things we can all do to bounce back more quickly and effectively.
Leader resilience is particularly important. Leaders are simultaneously experiencing strain and challenge but are expected to portray strength and optimism to those they lead. This increases the emotional labor they must engage in daily because they are acting in ways that are inconsistent with how they may be feeling.
Leaders often are called on to demonstrate compassion and empathy as they listen to their employees share their anxiety, frustration, and sadness over things that are happening. This can easily lead to compassion fatigue, which is exacerbated by a lack of resources to solve problems and excessive hours worked as a result of the amount of additional time leaders spend engaging their employees. Recognizing that this is happening, coupled with self-care and a willingness to take advantage of professional help, is key to reducing compassion fatigue and burnout from emotional labor.
Leader resilience has far-reaching effects, as their reactions impact not just their lives, but those of the employees in the units they lead. If a leader can’t bounce back, they are likely to experience burnout, which can present as emotional exhaustion, cynicism, or a loss of professional efficacy. If a leader feels like they don’t have the energy to work, or they lose their belief in others or themselves, the leader will struggle to lead effectively.
What can resilient leaders do?
- Frame challenges as opportunities from which to learn. Rather than dwelling on questions of “Why me?” the resilient leader thinks, “Bad things happen – that is part of life. What can I learn from this to be more resilient in the future?”
- Maintain an internal locus of control. Resilient leaders believe internal rather than external forces control their destiny. Although they may not control everything that happens, they can be prepared to control how they respond. By framing challenge and change as a way to learn and grow and to strengthen and develop others, resilient leaders focus on turning a negative experience into something positive.
- Learn what works for them. Some people revive from a talk with friends, others from time away from people. Some refresh from rest; others from exercise. Clinical evidence shows that stress can lead to lack of sleep, poor eating habits, and a sedentary lifestyle, all of which drain energy and leave a person feeling less capable of mustering enthusiasm for a new day. Combining what we know from research and what we know about ourselves, resilient leaders design a personal plan for creating habits that build hardiness into their lives.
A final question is how can leaders instill confidence and efficacy in others towards being resilient, while remaining authentic? By being vulnerable and acknowledging the toll that challenges take, they become someone with whom their employees can identify. By acknowledging the strain and still being able to express confidence in the group’s ability to overcome those stressors, leaders can be real and can inspire others. By demonstrating that “bouncing back” requires planful action and a deliberate mindset, leaders can continue to perform effectively and instill confidence in those around them.
Cover Image by Alex Shute