This past year has tested even the most highly functioning and irrepressible of teams. As uncertainty continues and resilience erodes, you may be seeing illnesses, mistakes, burnout, and conflict increase among your colleagues. It's time to ask yourself how you can better cultivate a capacity to thrive under stress as a group, not just as individuals. Or put another way, how you can become a resilient leader.
Early in my career as a U.S. diplomat, a simple but significant act taught me the power of resilience leadership. I had been sent to Baghdad by the State Department to open the Office of the U.S. Consul when insurgents attacked the Al-Rashid Hotel where I was staying. A rocket hit my room directly, leaving me alive but traumatized, suffering from PTSD (though I did not yet know it), and struggling to retain my equilibrium.
Looking back, I now know that the attack severely depleted my resilience. But at the time, I just knew I felt exhausted, angry, and bitter that I'd been placed in harm's way. I sent a nasty email to the State Department's HR office that included a snarky line saying that the only thing I wanted was for Secretary Colin Powell to tell my parents that he was keeping me safe. (To put this in perspective, it was a little bit like a deeply burnt-out mid-level manager at Amazon asking Jeff Bezos to make amends to their family).
And here's where I learned that lesson. Months later, long after I'd forgotten that email, I traveled to Washington D.C to accept an award for my actions after the Al-Rashid bombing. Just before it began, an aide asked my parents to stand in a specific spot in the room. After giving me the award, Secretary Powell left the stage and walked directly to my parents. He introduced himself, shook their hands, and told them, "Don't worry, I'm keeping your daughter safe." He comforted them and gave me the strength I needed to return to Baghdad and complete my assignment.
Why did this simple act contribute to my resilience and inspire me when I returned to a dangerous, unpredictable environment? I felt that Secretary Powell, despite his power and responsibilities, was genuinely committed to me and my family's well-being. What's more, I realized he had cultivated a team of people who were willing to forgive my anger, who were allowed to bring requests to him from junior staff, and who worked with him to make the time to fulfill what I thought was an unrealistic request.
Since then, I've dedicated my life to helping leaders at all levels demonstrate this kind of authentic commitment to their team members. During the pandemic, the online course in Resilience Leadership I teach on Udemy has surged in popularity -- with enrollments for resilience continuing to climb as we face the uncertainties of a post-pandemic workplace. Here are four meaningful ways you can effectively model and cultivate resilience right now, whether you're a supervisor, a manager, or a CEO.
Publicly Ask for Help
Many leaders are reluctant to admit in public that they need help, worried they will appear to be vulnerable or not up to the demands of the job. However, asking for help improves resilience, and when leaders publicly ask for help, they encourage others to do the same.
Acknowledge Your Bad Days
Most people try to give the impression that they are OK, even when they are not. When leaders acknowledge that they are having a tough time because a child is ill or a friend just died, this communicates that it is reasonable to struggle from time to time.
Talk About Your Passions
If your family is your passion, talk about them, and mention the importance of being home for dinner with your children. If a hobby is your passion, let your team know why you make time for it. When your employees see how much you value non-work activities, they will feel free to do the same.
Put Your People First
When people feel safe and supported, they will often perform exceptionally well under stress. Some will even remember the crisis as a highlight of their career. So take a few minutes and ask yourself whether you are truly putting your people first. Are you making the sacrifices necessary to demonstrate that you care about your staff? If not, ask yourself why. What are you prioritizing ahead of your employees? Identify the barriers preventing you from supporting your people and work to remove or minimize those barriers.
If you're afraid of the consequences of prioritizing people over profits, products, or policy, remind yourself that courage is taking action despite the fear, not the absence of fear. Commit to being courageous. You and so many others will be glad you did.