Leadership resilience is about keeping it together when stuff hits the fan and is the leadership challenge I hear most about:
Happily there’s a lot that can be done. So called reverting to type stems from flawed behavioural change strategies. Surprisingly it is in fact a learned behaviour (not genetic) so it can be corrected by people themselves if addressed properly.
However, using will power to hold it together under pressure is always going to fail if your unconscious mind is programmed to get autocratic when stressed. And according to the research it seems that most of us are.
Willpower can only override our default responses to situations if we have enough mental bandwidth available, and even then only briefly, and never in extreme cases. The issue is that quite low levels of pressure can consume all our mental bandwidth. In that case our default traits manifest, and for most of us that means getting dissonant (ie impacting others’ emotional states negatively).
We all know the feeling – when caught between a deadline and report who is frustrating us, our courtesy & respect can soon wear thin. Importantly the costs of such lapses into dissonance are huge:
And most tellingly in leadership terms, behaving resonantly 95% of the time is worthless if 5% of the time a person behaves dissonantly. As unfair as it seems when we’ve been the model leader for the vast majority of the time, the 5% is really damaging.
Why? Firstly, reports are never sure which version of us turned up today. Secondly, we are hard wired to recognise negative events which have a much more powerful effect on people than positive ones. Partly because we are genetically programmed to look for and focus on negative events (it’s a survival trait selected in by evolution). Partly because we are genetically programmed to take positive events for granted and pay them little heed.
There’s a plethora of good research data on this:
Fortunately we can learn hugely from how the 10% or so who sustained resonant leadership for more than a decade did it. And that has zero, nada, zip and bubkas to do with willpower. It turns out they all had some way of counteracting the negative programming impact of leadership stress on their behaviour. They all regularly included activities in their routine that provided positive psychological conditioning to nullify the deleterious impact of leadership stress. (New Impetus graduates may recognise this as a cognitive behavioural approach).
We see the same phenomenon in our surveys of former delegates. There’s a concrete statistical relationship between how much our alumni put into actively managing their psychology, and the scale of improvement they report in their professional performance (and in their personal lives).
Eating pressure for breakfast needs to become an unconscious routine rather than a macho expression of bravado and hope. That comes from achieving deep resilience, which in turn requires active management of the psychological environment.
Positive psychology research in recent years has proved that resilience is built when we spend time in positive emotional states. Whilst experiencing positive emotion we are constantly triggering the chemical and synaptic changes in our brain that manifest as increased ability to push through challenges, cruise past setbacks without losing momentum, and survive stressful and even traumatic experiences much more readily and completely.
Indeed that last point, the fact that resilience determines whether we experience growth or stress disorder following traumatic experiences, is the reason the US Army has in recent years trained 30,000 NCOs as positive psychology coaches.
Leadership resilience is exactly the same. The way to achieve it is to stop trying to hold dissonant behaviour at bay with our force of will – that is always certain to fail. The answer is to actively manage our conditioning inputs so as to optimise the amount of time we spend in positive states, and thus create the resilience we seek.
The benefits extend beyond leadership behaviour into all aspects of personal effectiveness. High levels of stress wipe out clarity of thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, analytical reasoning skills, and energy – and it feels very unpleasant. The health dangers of prolonged stress are well documented and can be extreme. Highly resilient people avoid these performance and quality of life killers more often that others. Even in high pressure situations they spend more time in high performance states and so, as the data clearly shows, they outperform others. And enjoy life more.
Lastly I want to share that in psychological terms it makes no sense to try and reverse dissonance and performance collapse once they have kicked in. It’s already too late, no amount of will power and strength of character can enable the brain to do that. Furthermore the hormones generated by the emotional flooding stress creates can take eight hours to dissipate from the system, and for the whole of that time one’s performance and behaviour are impacted negatively.
The only reliable answer is to focus on creating a positive conditioning psychological environment that will build resilience. That’s the smart place to invest your effort. The evidence is clear, this is the only approach that works.
If you’d like to know more about how the leaders in your organisation can accomplish this please do get in touch.
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