Resilient Leadership - A Strengths Perspective

In this second article on Resilient Leadership, I want to focus on Strengths, and how leaders can role model and develop strengths in their team that enable resilience as a habit to thrive. Three ‘Heart’ strengths tend to come to the fore in the midst of a crisis, but we’ll also explore a further three strengths that scientists agree foster sustainable resilience within your team, being:

  1. Optimism
  2. Perspective
  3. Curiosity

Firstly, a quick word on resilience. The common definition is to ‘bounce back from adversity and challenge’. I find a more helpful definition is the ability to ‘do okay’ or function ‘better than ok’ in the face of adversity. What this means is that you and your team are able to positively adjust and adapt to this challenging situation, almost like a super material that can absorb strain and maintain its shape. Remember that resilience is developmental, nobody is born with it, it can be learned - and as a human being you are bound to be fallible, that’s why just ‘doing okay’ is good.

 Strengths – and Strength learning – is also developmental. Whilst we have strengths that come naturally to us (known as ‘Signature Strengths’), there are 24 known Character Strengths from the field of Positive Psychology we can adopt, learn from and incorporate into our daily lives.  The importance of this to Resilient Leadership is that in manifold studies exploring the relationship between Resilience and Character Strengths, evidence confirms the development of Strengths acts as an effective buffer against the negative effects of stress and anxiety.

 The ‘Heart’ Strengths

 After 9/11, scientific studies showed an immediate increase in the strengths of kindness, gratitude and love. Unsurprisingly, these strengths of the Heart connect people together. We’re witnessing the same in the UK at the moment, small acts of neighbourly kindness, gratitude for what we do have (rather than what we do not have) and an appreciation for those we love (together with an increased desire to virtually spend time with them).

 Whilst these three strengths remain critical for our social and emotional resilience, scientists suggest that three further strengths act as a buffer against depression in the aftermath of an immediate crisis, fuelling future resilience and offering sustainable and superior coping skills.

  1. Optimism and Hope

 Optimism is key and the Strength that scientists agree (a feat in itself!) is fundamental to resilience. It is worth understanding that optimism and pessimism are simply explanatory styles of thinking about life events which predict a positive vs. negative mood. People with optimistic explanations of life generally feel happier and more energised to cope with obstacles, seeing them as challenges rather than failure experiences. Optimists are more likely to analyse whether setbacks are situational, then are able to develop plans to remove obstacles to their goals. Pessimists are more likely to view life problems as personal failures, blame themselves, feel unhappy and give up trying to change. You might be one of the lucky ones who is genetically blessed with optimistic parents, so looking on the bright side comes naturally (with your genes counting for approximately 50% of your psychological make-up), but for everyone else, here are 10 ways to increase the strength of optimism.

  • Notice your own and your team’s way of explaining away adversity. When difficult things happen, do you use words like ‘always’, ‘never’ or ‘everything’? So, for instance, if your resolution to crack home-schooling has already taken a nosedive, do you hear yourself saying ‘I never stick to my resolves; I’m always rubbish at stuff like this’? Even if good things happen to a pessimist, they write them off as a fluke…
  • Optimists explain away adverse events in specific, temporal and impersonal ways, i.e. not always; not forever; not across everything and it’s not always my fault.  In other words, when your team encounters a problem, help them practise viewing it as specific to a certain situation, temporary and thus able to be changed and not related to a personal deficiency. Then they are more likely to be positively energised and can change the problem situation to their advantage. I talk to my clients about ‘containing’ adverse events – put a box round it and don’t let it leak out to everything else.
  1. Perspective and Wisdom

Perspective is the ability to take stock of life in larger terms and, as a leader, make sense of it to yourself and to others. It is the product of knowledge and experience and the deliberate use of this enhances well-being. For anyone in your team who ruminates, catastrophises and struggles to keep their emotions in control, fuelling in turn their anxiety, the strength of Perspective is your supporting ballast. I love this strength, but it doesn't come easily to me. It’s the strength card that I keep above my desk, to remind myself to think bigger picture, above and beyond the immediate problem.

* Look to the past to develop the strength of Perspective for the future.

 Each week, on every team meeting, cast your team’s minds back to the previous week (particularly because everyone is likely to be focused on how to resolve this week’s problems). Ask them the following:

  • What problems did we face as a team last week?
  • How did we resolve them?
  • What does this tell us about our team’s abilities to cope?
  • What strengths did we utilise to move from just Surviving to Thriving?
  • How can we use this knowledge and experience going forwards?
  1. Curiosity

 Curiosity might have killed the cat, but your ability to help your team strengthen their growth mindset, learn to be open to experiences and appreciate paradox, will be critical in the coming months. It is Exploratory Curiosity that is important here – the desire to learn, grow and look outwards. Some helpful nudges for Leaders:

  • Keep your team learning. TED talks; articles; podcasts. Choose a theme each week or ask people to share one thing they have learned each week (just for interest sakes);
  • When things go wrong, focus on the learning. Show that setbacks are growth opportunities. Failure is not fixed. Share Carol Dweck’s writing on Growth Mindsets;
  • Enhance an appreciation of paradox – loss and gain; grief and gratitude; vulnerability and strength. The idea that Glennon Doyle calls ‘brutifal’ - life can be beautiful and brutal;
  • Help your team reframe their ‘have to’s’, “when I have to do this, what I get from doing this is…”

Finally, I would personally like to add the strength of Courage. It is not always stressed by scientists as the strength that leads to Resilience, but in my experience  from the leaders I coach, it takes courage to lead, courage to have the conversations we are talking about in this article, and, as a leader, the courage to grow from stress. It is of course, at the heart of Encouragement.