Leadership resilience is about more than eating pressure for breakfast!

Leadership resilience is about keeping it together when stuff hits the fan and is the leadership challenge I hear most about:

  • from subordinates who are feeling aggrieved at the high handed, callous or self-interested behaviour of their boss;
  • from managers who are frustrated by their lack of ability to consistently treat people well when things get intense and they feel under pressure;
  • from chief executives who are puzzled by poor engagement stats despite the company values being about respect, inclusion, and valuing others.

Why doesn’t willpower work?

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).

When our inner Autocrat escapes

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:

  • Engagement is damaged or destroyed as reports withdraw their followership
  • Discretionary effort is withheld and productivity falls sharplyCosts rise &/or revenue slows &/or growth falls off
  • People vote with their feet – good people don’t tolerate bullying leaders

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.

And lets be honest, that 95%-5% thing is REALLY common.

There’s a plethora of good research data on this:

  • 10 years after starting work on researching resonant leadership, Boyatzis & McKee returned to re-interview individuals who’d been best at it a decade earlier. They found the vast majority of them had reverted to dissonant leadership style.
  • They put the reversion down to leadership stress, the special pressure leaders feel because of the demands of power and of being in the limelight – there’s no place for leaders to hide. Their financial performance is there for everyone to see, and their head is likely to be the first to roll if it disappoints. Moreover the approachability that characterises the resonance means they are constantly much more visible to everyone they lead than say an autocrat.

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).

Achieving deep resilience

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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