Having coached several hundred leaders over that last decade, I’m amazed at the impact that seriously tough and unexpected life events can have on their lives. As an executive coach, I observe there are two types of leaders: those that drop inward and don’t or can’t dig out, and those that go inward and find an intestinal fortitude that weaves an even stronger personal fiber and focus from which to lead. Recently, when well into a coaching engagement, a normally worry-free client was avoiding the commitments that were necessary to move him towards a very time sensitive goal.
Despite everything that was on the line if he didn’t act, there remained an element of fear or loss associated with the very actions he needed to take in order to move him towards what he really wanted. We worked through what some call the ‘other story’ that was really playing for him. With focus and effort, he re-scripted the outcomes he wanted, and eventually, realized them. I’m still applauding. Building resilience allows us to step into the fear of change, the unknown, of loss, and much more.
What is it that enables us not only to survive and push forward, but to deliberately dig in and see things through? It’s psychological resilience, the ability to positively cope with fear, stress, and adversity. I like to call it ‘grit’ and though it’s available to all of us, although in the instant it’s needed, it can seem to be in short supply. When working with clients and in my own life, I’ve found that the ability walk forward in the face of fear is a developed process, more than being an inborn trait or quality. John Wayne once said “Courage is being afraid and saddling up and getting on your horse anyway.” I don’t know of a leader who doesn’t experience fear in the face of tough decisions. Developing grit means doing what’s necessary despite feeling fearful.
When clients face situations that require an additional amount of resilience, we work on growing it one step at a time, then work to reinforce and infuse it in others. When you require this level of leadership resilience to be your best, even in the face of fear, what do you do? We know you can’t borrow grit from anyone else, any more than you can borrow integrity. How do we as leaders develop this resilience and ability to do what’s needed in the face of fear? How do we help those we lead do the same?
It’s a fact that, when we face something that we fear, our bio-chemistry and our beliefs have a huge impact on our ability to take action. In coaching, I might ask a client who has this fear to, “tell the short story of what will happen if you did this, or did that?” Inevitably, they will have already played out their future vision repeatedly, to the degree that they have avoided taking action because they already ‘know’ what will or will not happen. As a species, we’ve an innate ability to embrace fiction as reality. We are mentally wired to deeply anchor that fiction to the emotion of our imagined fears, so that if we’re not careful, we’ll create non-existent roadblocks in the way of getting the very things we most desire. Here are 4 disciplines I explore when coaching clients wanting to build resilience:
- Rewrite Your Stories. What do you tell yourself in the midst of adversity? Do you replay your failures or fears from the past? If so, why not try new stories based on what’s currently happening? What does the current evidence support? What’s something different you may not have considered that would be wonderful if it actually happened? What’s the best thing that might happen?
- Reinforce Your Self-Regard. How capable do you believe you are at influencing positive outcomes? Do you project confidence through your decisions? What are the key actions you’d take if you trusted that you already had everything you needed to succeed in a specific situation? It’s helpful to write down each action, quality, and belief you’d have if you had all that was needed. Review this list daily as if they were already realized and practice being in that new possibility. Reality has a greater chance of fulfilling that which we believe is possible. Discipline and hard work combined with belief are your supporting players in this story.
- Reinvent Your Connections. The ability to care for, be understood, and be united with others plays a huge role in our ability to reframe and to bounce back from adversity. Do you fly solo or are you deeply connected to at least a few people at work who have your back? If you want a strong network to lean on when you feel like caving in, identify 3-4 others who have qualities you most admire and know you well enough to invest time in your relationship. Initiate quality time with them on a regular basis, being real about who you and, in return, being great listener for them.
- Review and Revise. The will to do what it takes in the face of feeling fearful can be developed. When you’re feeling anxious, review what stories are informing your view of the situation. Sometimes sharing these out loud is helpful. I suggest my client’s record a new ‘what if’ success story using a smartphone app, then listen to it repeatedly. Be alert for toxic messages that can deflate your will to act. Remember that toxicity can be subtle, like telling yourself you’re not smart or need to be perfect or meet unrealistic expectations of someone else. The mind’s natural defense is to prevent a perceived failure. Change what’s needed if the story or message your mind is playing isn’t inspiring your actions towards the outcomes you most desire.