Stress, Resilience, and Recovery

This post was shared by Institute for Transformational Leadership Academic Director – Bill Pullen. 

We’re all human.

Obvious, right? Maybe even a cliché.

But how often have you been witness to people acting as if it isn’t true of themselves or, perhaps, others? How often does decision-making neglect this simple fact?

We’re living in interesting times (another cliché – but also, again, true). The nation is undergoing profound changes that are calling for personal and institutional adaptation to a degree that hasn’t been seen in decades. New possibilities are opening up and, at the same time, new challenges are arising. Leaders are being asked to step up and create a safe path forward for their organizations through a chaotic and turbulent landscape, all while doing the same thing for themselves and their families.

The classic archetype of leadership in American culture is that of a lone figure, demanding and remote, who perseveres by withdrawing and powering through obstacles without regard for the emotional cost to themselves or others. It’s a model that carries with it a lot of implicit baggage around gender and race, which makes it a poor fit for the increasingly diverse workplace of today. It’s also brittle, inflexible, and leaves very little room to be human.

But leaders are human. Organizations and institutions are composed of humans. And what is increasingly apparent is that if we truly accept these facts then the outcomes for both individuals and organizations are better than if we deny them. Rather than weakening us, creating a space for us to understand our gifts and limitations and how they interact with our environment can be a source of great strength. It can bring resiliency.

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as, “…the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. As much as resilience involves ‘bouncing back’ from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.”

Instead of minimizing or dismissing stress, a leader who has resilience is one who allows themselves and others the necessary space to take actions that affirm their human characteristics in a way that promotes growth and strength. The APA suggests building personal resilience by building connections through prioritizing relationships; fostering wellness by taking care of your body and practicing mindfulness; finding purpose by helping others, looking for opportunities for self-discovery; and embracing healthy thoughts by keeping things in perspective, accepting change, and maintaining a hopeful outlook.

There are many ways to develop greater resilience and build in periods of recovery. Every person can find healthy practices that work for them. These practices need not be time consuming; just stepping away from the computer, walking outside for a minute of fresh air between meetings, or pausing and taking a few deep breaths can send a message to the nervous system to slow down. The cumulative effect of utilizing these techniques is the creation of a more resilient physical, emotional, and spiritual posture towards personal and work life.

Leaders play an important role in setting the tone for their organization. A leader who practices resilience techniques is one who creates space for their employees to do so as well. All too often leaders voice encouragement for their subordinates to set appropriate boundaries but do not do so themselves. It is important that leaders model the behaviors they want people to engage in by providing an example as non-verbal cues demonstrated by leaders are at least as important as vocalizing support for healthy practices.

Organizations can be resilient, too. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review titled on organizational resilience the authors write, “To cope – and thrive – in uncertain times, develop scripted routines, simple rules, and the ability to improvise.”

Researchers have identified three broad approaches to getting work done, and what they’ve learned can help managers respond more effectively to highly changeable environments. The first approach is the one we’ve just described: organizational routines, which are efficient when work is predictable. The second approach is simple rules, or heuristics—rules of thumb that help you speed up processes and decision-making and prioritize the use of resources in less-predictable contexts (for example, “We invest only in projects with a projected ROI of 10% or more”). And the third is improvisation—spontaneous, creative efforts to address an opportunity or a problem (for example, when a team figures out how to do manual production because a factory’s automated line has suddenly broken down).

This mix of approaches creates both continuity and the ability to adapt to changing conditions. In other words, it is possible to approach challenges using a set of tools that preserves institutional identity but leaves room for growth.

Everybody goes through turbulent periods. We’re all human. But intentionally foster an attitude of balance – of equilibrium – can help us to meet our challenges and thrive in uncertain times. Leaders who cultivate a framework of daily practices that leaves room for creative growth will find themselves and their organizations better equipped to meet the challenges of the day, whatever the day brings.

Ask yourself: what steps can you take to create resilience in your own life and in the culture of the organizations that you lead?

To learn more about Resilience and Transformational Leadership, check out our podcast:  Transformational Leadership for Transformational Times podcast. 

One thought on “Stress, Resilience, and Recovery”

  1. Many thanks Bill for this very timely post. It’s so helpful to have the three approaches framework you summarized from the HBR piece. Seeing the 3 distinct approaches– organizational routines, rules of thumb and improv– helps me begin to organize the “intuitive muddling” I’ve sensed that I’ve been working thru during these times when our country seems divided and COVID has us isolated at the very time we most need to be coming together. This is a powerful framework I plan to share with coaching clients; I believe it will be invaluable in helping them find the resilience to soldier on in their leadership in ways that unify and provide hope. Thank you for the wisdom!

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