How can we be more resilient in leadership?

Believe it or not, business leaders could learn a lot from skydivers. Before aspiring skydivers are allowed to hit the skies, they spend numerous training sessions learning how to hit the ground safely by simply jumping off ladders. The lesson for leaders? If you’re going to be brave, then it’s best to prepare yourself for bumpy landings. In other words, you need to learn how to be resilient.

Unsurprisingly, things are done differently in business than in skydiving. Leaders and leadership coaches are usually aware of the need for resilience training, but these skills are usually taught only after a failure or crisis has already happened. It’s comparable to teaching newbie skydivers the right way to hit the ground after they’ve already landed, or worse, when they’re already in free-fall.

But there is a better way. Research has shown that when it comes to teaching leaders resilience skills, timing is everything. Specifically, teaching them early on as part of a wider training program is more likely to result in them demonstrating courageous behaviors. Why? Quite simply, they are confident in their ability to get back up again if their daring behavior doesn’t pay off. So companies that fail to instill these resilience skills in their workforce are effectively deterring their leaders, both present and future, from bravery.

Some organizations may worry that teaching leaders how to fail from the get-go promotes a culture of low expectations. In fact, the opposite is true. For instance, in the author’s own company she makes it a priority to teach failing and resilience skills as part of the onboarding process for new recruits. It’s the company’s way of telling new joiners that bravery is expected, thus failure is also expected once in a while.

Interestingly, this emphasis on resilience is nothing new. You may well have seen company slogans urging you to “fall forward” and “fail fast!” But without a resilience skills program to back them up, implemented at an early stage in a leader’s development, these slogans can do more harm than good. Why? Because leaders who fail without the resilience skills to cope quickly find themselves dealing with a double dose of shame – the shame of the initial failure quickly followed by the shame of struggling to pick themselves up again despite all the shouty motivational slogans urging them to learn and move on.

Right from childhood, we seek to shield ourselves from vulnerable feelings like disappointment, hurt and diminishment. By building a wall out of our behaviors, emotions and thoughts, we protect ourselves from the big bad world. But to live and lead with courage, as we already know, we must let ourselves be vulnerable. This means letting down our walls and recognizing protective thoughts and behaviors for the defense mechanisms they really are.

One of the most pervasive types of self-protection is perfectionism. To become daring leaders, we must rid ourselves of perfectionism. To do so, let’s start by busting some of the myths around this damaging phenomenon.

Perhaps the most damaging myth of all is that perfectionism is about self-improvement and striving for excellence. But in fact, perfectionism is really about attempting to win approval. Most perfectionists are raised in environments that praise their exceptional performance, for example in athletics or school. As a result, perfectionists develop a damaging belief system that follows them into their adult lives, anchoring their whole sense of self in accomplishments and brilliant execution.

This locks perfectionists into an exhausting behavioral pattern of pleasing people, perfecting efforts, performing for others and proving themselves. People with a healthy drive for success, on the other hand, are much more self-focused and inspired by asking themselves how they can improve. It’s a stark contrast with perfectionists, who ask ‘what might others think of me?’

Significantly, leaders who armor themselves with perfectionism often assume that this way of thinking will bring them success. They couldn’t be more wrong because there is a much darker side to perfectionism, going way beyond the need to please.

Disturbingly, research shows that perfectionism is associated with addiction, depression and anxiety. Furthermore, perfectionists are more likely to miss opportunities and experience mental paralysis that keeps them from fully engaging in life. Why? Because their fears of being criticized or not meeting the expectations of others keeps them from entering the messy arena of life, where healthy competition and striving for true greatness occur.

To become a daring leader, take off the armor of perfectionism and jump into the fray of life. You might make mistakes in the process, but you’ll gain something valuable in exchange: the courage to succeed and lead.

When we open ourselves up to vulnerability, we open ourselves up to courage and creativity. When we let go of our perfectionist tendencies and our fear of failure, we find the bravery to improve ourselves and to have difficult, important conversations with our colleagues. In other words, we need all of our emotions on board if we’re going to become daring leaders.

So try this out. Explore your feelings instead of numbing them.

Our knee-jerk response when experiencing vulnerability is often to try to make it go away. We usually numb ourselves, with whatever we have at hand – whether it’s alcohol, comfort eating or shopping. But before you dive into that big glass of wine or tub of ice cream, ask yourself: What is it I’m actually feeling, and where has this feeling come from? Once you’ve identified the real problem, you can work out what will bring you real comfort and relief from it. And it really brings another perspective.

Check out my related post: What CEOs do when faced with disruption?

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