Resiliency Revisited

By Randy Lisk

Everybody looks good at the starting line.

Get on your mark, get ready, but you better keep this in mind.

You can hit the ground running like you’re shot from a gun,

But going the distance is the hard part son.

Everybody looks good at the starting line.

When I recently heard these song lyrics by Paul Thorn, they reminded me of our discussion of resiliency in our book, The Complete Leader. Resiliency is the ability to quickly recover from adversity and be more than a mere survivor. It is the trait that helps us “go the distance” as we run our race toward our own definition of success. Being resilient helps anybody deal with the inevitable challenges in his or her life, but it’s essential for leaders because leaders, by definition, will face problems and adversity in their roles. Resiliency determines how (or if) people recover from loss. It can literally save or transform a life.   

In section 2-4 of The Complete Leader we made several suggestions about learning and cultivating resiliency. The headlines included:

  • Remember that failure = learning,
  • See yourself as a survivor not a victim,
  • Do not let one event hijack your whole life,
  • Stay flexible,
  • Use your support network.

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown discusses resiliency and many of her points are similar to what are listed above. She says resilient people have good problem-solving skills, believe they can do something to manage the situation, are more likely to seek help and are connected to others who can provide social support. She also lists three other patterns essential to resilience. They are (1) cultivating hope; (2) practicing critical awareness; and (3) dealing directly with the pain rather than “numbing out” to cope with uncomfortable emotions. Let’s examine these three patterns in more detail.

Cultivating Hope

Dr. Brown cites noted researcher Dr. Rick Snyder’s work in the field of positive psychology. He said that hope is more than an emotion. It is a thought process made up of three things:

  • Goals (I know where I want to go.)
  • Pathways (I know how to get there. I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again.)
  • and Agency ( motivation to follow the pathway. I can do this!) 

You may have heard the saying, “Hope is not a strategy.” However, if hope includes a goal or vision along with an idea of how to get there, coupled with a belief in yourself, maybe hope is more than a strategy.

A key part of hope is the thinking that goes on in the hopeful (or hopeless) person’s head. How we explain bad events is learned behavior; it comes from thought patterns that we formed in childhood.  People who lack resilience believe the causes of bad events that happen to them are permanent, and will last forever. Their language is full of never and always: “This always happens to me.”  Or, “This will never get better.” People who are more resilient believe the causes of bad events are temporary. Their perspective on bad events is that they do not last forever: “This too shall pass.”

In addition, people with more resilience confine the trouble that occurs to a specific part of their life, such as their job. They can still maintain a normal life in their other life roles. They can separate events and keep them in perspective. “The boss was mean to me today. I am looking forward to a nice evening with my family.” People with less resilience can suffer a similar bad event in one part of their life and they will let it affect all parts of their life. “The boss was mean to me today. No wonder I yelled at my wife and ignored my kids.”

To promote hope and foster resilience, have a positive goal to work towards along with some strategies to get there. In addition, practice using temporary and specific explanations when describing your difficult circumstances.

Practicing Critical Awareness

In our book we used the term “threat rigidity” to explain the phenomenon of people or organizations under stress who fail to find new solutions to problems because they are not looking for them. They revert to what is most comfortable and familiar to them, often overlooking a better solution hiding in plain sight. People who can remain critically aware are more able to modify their “pathways” to help them reach their goal when conditions change.

Critical awareness is how we observe, absorb, and respond to our daily experiences. If someone is unaware, he is not experiencing all that he can; therefore, he will not resolve problems as effectively as someone who is more aware. For example, when people get lost in the wilderness those who have a higher survival rate adapt to their present circumstances, for better or worse. They are almost hyper-aware of their surroundings. Consequently they are aware of and can take advantage of more options for survival. Those with lower survival rates tend to shut down. They do not see what is actually around them and therefore do not take advantage of what is available. Casualties have been found with all the materials they needed to survive still in their pack – unopened. 

To paraphrase Dr. Stephen Covey, if you are in Detroit, a map of Chicago will not help you.  You need a map that matches the territory. When the “territory” changes, such as getting lost in the wilderness, we need to discard our old maps and use more appropriate ones. We use our mental maps to solve problems and, literally, to survive. If our mental maps do not match reality our lives can literally be at stake. When people become lost in the wilderness, or are caught in a severe snowstorm, they must literally recreate their mental maps, using whatever information is available, in order to survive.

At work, mental maps can be altered by outside forces such as new competitors or new government regulations. A person creates an incorrect map when he only listens to people who tell him what he wants to hear. A critical leadership error is not getting all the feedback available, whether it is flattering or not. “Don’t bring me bad news” is not the way to resilience and success. We talk with leaders about “getting more brains in the game” to encourage them to listen to all the voices that have a stake in any situation.

Letting Go of Numbing

People find many ways to take the edge off of feeling bad due to life’s difficulties. Alcohol, food, drugs, sex, work, gambling, shopping, planning, perfectionism, staying busy and the internet are but a few of the choices. People do this because difficulties make them feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. It is normal to use some activities for numbing from time to time. Having a glass of wine at the end of a long day is usually not a problem. When numbing becomes chronic and compulsive and it becomes the primary strategy for dealing with difficulties, it has morphed into an addiction. The addiction becomes the focus of attention instead of dealing with the difficulty at hand. Therefore, the root cause of the problem never gets fixed and the cycle continues.  

The other problem with using numbing to excess is that it is an equal opportunity tool.  You cannot numb the difficult emotions without also numbing the positive emotions such as joy, love and satisfaction.  Living life authentically, as we talk about in part four of our book, entails dealing honestly with the messiness and vulnerabilities of being an imperfect human. Critical awareness cannot coexist with addictive numbing. Practice leaning into life’s tough spots.  It will make life’s sweet spots even sweeter.

Everyone looks good at the starting line. Consider practicing the ideas discussed here and in The Complete Leader to become more resilient and you can not only look good at the finish line you can also enjoy the race, which, in the end, is what the race is all about.  



Deep Survival – Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales

Learned OptimismHow To Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.

The Gifts of ImperfectionLet Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed To Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene’ Brown, Ph.D.

The Psychology of HopeYou Can Get There From Here by Dr. C.R.Snyder