Resilience is Critical Today. But Where Does It Come From?

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change.  [more info]

Why are some people more resilient than others? Researchers have asked that question for decades. Some of the answers relate to individual characteristics like initiative, determination, motivation, optimism, and self-awareness. These all make sense, but resilience usually requires other factors. I learned that from a middle school teacher who told me about two brothers she’d had in her classes. They were raised by a mom who worked long hours at minimum wage and came home with no energy or time for her sons. They lived in a high-crime neighborhood. These were genuinely nice kids. But both struggled in school, both were influenced by the gangs on the streets, neither got support at home.

Over time, one demonstrated what we’d all call resilience. He was accepted to a magnet school where he blossomed. He got into college, worked all four years, became an informal leader on campus, and had several lucrative job offers when he graduated. He turned them down and chose to become a professional human services worker, helping kids who were struggling as he had. His brother, alas, has continued to struggle. If you talk with those who’ve taught school for many years, they’ll probably know of similar stories. One kid in the family escaped a negative situation, the others didn’t. That one kid was somehow “different.”

How did this brother break out? In middle school he met an adult who liked him. She helped him get into the magnet school. She found a college with a work-study program. When he occasionally slipped, she provided confidence and support. She showed him how to use his good people skills to give and get support from others.

This story, and several studies, taught me that resilience isn’t only an individual characteristic. Resilience, it seems, is a team sport.

Many famous leaders relied on others to get through tough times. Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression from the time he was a young man through his incredibly difficult White House years. One of his tonics was spending time with others. He loved to regale friends and colleagues with his colorful stories. He selected his famous “team of rivals” to form the core of his cabinet, and continually talked with them about his most difficult decisions. He often visited with parents who’d lost a son in the war. Lincoln needed a team to be resilient, and he knew it.

Nelson Mandela also gained strength from others. That was especially true during the 27 years he spent in prison. He and the other political prisoners continually shared information about key events in their country. Mandela used his legal skills to write judicial appeals for his fellow prisoners. Remarkably, he found ways to form mutually respectful relationships with some of the prison guards, relationships that often led to improvements in the prison conditions.

Resilience is a team sport. Indeed, on the American Psychological Association’s list 10 ways to build resilience, “build your connections” is listed first. But resilience also requires something else, something that helped Lincoln and Mandela deal with their enormous challenges. They both understood that attitude is a choice. By his own account, Mandela entered prison an angry man. But he let go of the anger and chose to use his prison years to help his fellow inmates develop the leadership skills they would need if and when they were released. He chose to study the prison guards and learn their language and culture, and he used that knowledge when he negotiated with white South African leaders and convinced them to abolish the repressive apartheid system. Once president, he urged his black supporters to see white South Africans no longer as their enemy, but as their fellow countrymen. His most militant colleagues said he’d sold out. But, like Lincoln, he chose to follow the path of reconciliation, not retribution.

Two things to remember about resilience:
1. Resilience is a team sport, and
2. Attitude is a choice.

In the Hebrew Bible, Moses offers another example of extraordinary resilience. Over the 40-year period after he led his people out of bondage he endured their continual complaints, their violations of God’s laws, even attempted rebellions against his leadership. But Moses didn’t take on these burdens alone. He teamed up with his brother Aaron throughout the journey. He took his father-in-law Jethro’s advice to stop rendering decisions on all issues by himself and create a system of judges to share the responsibilities. When the people’s constant carping drove him to such despair that he begged God to end his life, he accepted God’s suggestion to gather 70 elders to share his burden with them. He knew that resilience is a team sport.

He also demonstrated that attitude is a choice. When the Israelites were about to go into the Promised Land, Moses told the people that God wouldn’t allow him to enter it. Rather than betray the disappointment he no doubt felt, he presents their next leader, Joshua, to all of the people, telling him to “be strong and resolute, for you will go with this people into the land that God swore to their father.” It’s an extraordinary act, visibly handing Joshua the mantle of leadership that he so dearly wished to maintain. Moses demonstrated that attitude is a choice.

None of us is a Moses. Few of us will ever undergo what Mandela endured. So, let’s look at an example of resilience that we might identify with more easily.

A week after our stepfather Bob married our mom, he learned that he had cancer. In his next 10 years he went through multiple operations for a nasty and clever cancer that kept finding new places to attack him. He was realistic, he knew his long-term possibilities were grim. Never one for self-pity, he chose to focus most of his time on our mom and others he loved. Those connections meant the world to him. He knew he needed connections to keep on going.

And Bob’s attitude was superb. Before each operation he found something funny or offbeat to say. After every operation he had just one question for the surgeon: “What can I still do?” He never dwelled on what he could no longer do (like eating his favorite foods). And as he was wheeled into what would be his last operation, he told my brother Jim, “And I bequeath to Jim Linden my Los Angeles Lakers tickets!” with a great smile and twinkle in his eye. He understood that attitude is a choice. So, he chose to live in a way that was meaningful, drawing him even closer to those he loved.

What are your ways of maintaining resilience when things are tough? What attitude do you adopt? Who helps you get through it?

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Public Employees and the Path to Resilience

Knowing your organization’s story and why it’s important can go a long way toward helping workers cope with change.

Resilience — the ability to bounce back from a significant challenge — is on many professionals’ minds these days. Schoolteachers, middle managers, psychologists, leaders in homeland security and others are trying to learn where resilience comes from and how to help people develop it. Given the enormous demands on government employees today, it’s no surprise that resilience is on their minds as well.

How does resilience develop? Why is it that a child who demonstrates great resilience has a sibling who shows little or none? Can resilience be learned? Recent research on resilient children offers some clues to these important questions.

In a March 2013 article in the New York Times, Bruce Feiler pointed to studies indicating that children who are taught their family’s story — their ancestors, the family’s strengths, its challenges — tend to be more resilient. They handle stress better and have a stronger sense of control over their lives. The most powerful story, Feiler added, includes examples of a family’s ups and downs and the ways family members have hung together and supported each other. Kids who learn such stories develop an “intergeneration self” — they know that they belong to something larger than themselves.

Research on resilient kids shows that it isn’t the family story itself that builds resilience but rather the process by which kids learn it. In a word, it’s about communications. When kids hear their family’s story repeated during family trips, vacations or social events, they gain a sense of identity and learn that they can rely on others when they need to.

Interesting, you might be thinking, but what does this have to do with government agencies and their employees? Many leaders believe it has everything to do with their work. Some police and fire departments, for example, invest considerable time and effort in teaching their new recruits about their profession’s culture and how it developed. At the U.S. Naval Academy, seniors are urged to take plebes on “history-building exercises” by visiting places of historic importance to the Navy and telling stories of those moments and what they meant.

At the National Security agency, new employees are brought on their first day to NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum. They learn the history of cryptology (the study and deciphering of codes) and the enormous contribution it has made in warfare and in preventing wars. They also learn the story of how NSA came to be. Then the employees are told that they are needed to help the NSA tackle the huge challenges it faces. Finally, they take their oath to the Constitution and are reminded that the oath is to the nation, giving them a larger sense of purpose.

Veteran employees of an agency can benefit from hearing its story as well. I once consulted with a municipal social-services department that was going through an enormous change: Staff were transitioning from being subject-matter experts in one narrow field to being multi-skilled generalists who had to know something about many areas. Naturally, the agency’s workers were filled with anxiety.

We brought in a respected, recently retired colleague of theirs to talk with the staff. She discussed the conditions that led to their former roles and the many contributions the staff had made. She also reminded them that part of their department’s story was that it had gone through a number of major changes in the past decade or more and had always managed them well. Indeed, she pointed out, staffers had developed a “whatever-it-takes” attitude toward change.

The retiree had the workers talk about what they valued in their former organizational structure and what they would miss. Then she finished by acknowledging the huge challenge facing them, and expressed her confidence that they would rise to that challenge. “I know who you are,” she told them. “I know that you’ll manage this change very well, because it’s right for our clients. And that’s always been our compass, doing what our clients need.” The agency’s staff members accepted the challenge and regained their confidence.

Does your staff know your organization’s story? Do you?