Part of my job is carrying out in-depth psychological profiling to ‘check out’ the fit of leaders for roles. One client requested that I include an assessment of Emotional Resilience for every leader I saw, and I was more than happy to oblige. I’ll explain why later, but for now….
What does Emotional Resilience mean?
The word resilience comes from the Latin ‘resilio’, which means to jump (or bounce). Adding emotional refers to our ability to bounce back from stressful life events. It’s our ‘bounce-back-ability’.
We can’t avoid stress, it’s there everyday, for everyone. While the spectrum ranges from minor hiccups, like being stuck in traffic to major events, such as loss of a loved one, we all experience it. Leaders arguably encounter higher levels of stress than ‘Your Average Joe’, but it’s critical for everyone’s emotional health to manage stress.
Are some people born with more Emotional Resilience than others?
‘Yes’ there are some people who are ‘naturally’ more resilient. We all know people who glide through life without a care in the world and those who are pulled down by every minor glitch. BUT there’s also a major environmental component. So we can learn to be more resilient, and it’s definitely worth doing.
Does our environment support us?
Unfortunately not, the International Resilience Project, which sought to understand how ‘youth’ from around the world cope with adversities found that “Only about 38 per cent of the thousands of responses….indicate that resilience is being promoted.” Sadly we’re just not set up to understand let alone promote positive psychological constructs.
Taking a personal example, a good friend died a few weeks ago, followed by my Granny. With the best intentions I was told to ‘be strong’, ‘don’t be sad’, ‘keep your chin up’. These are the typical phrases we offer to help. But what these comments unintentionally infer (and therefore what runs as an undercurrent across society) is that we shouldn’t experience the feelings, we should suppress them or avoid them. What’s more if we can’t or don’t, we’re doing something wrong or we’re weak. But this isn’t what emotional resilience is. In fact it’s a very unhealthy way to approach things.
So what does Emotional Resilience look like?
As I opened on the theme of leadership, I’ll use Nelson Mandela to illustrate the factors involved, a man who encountered extreme adversity yet came out stronger the other side.
- Positive Self Concept & Outlook – a belief that whatever is going on, you’re still in control of the situation rather than it being something that is ‘done to you’.
Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years, without a strong belief that things were going to ultimately turn out OK it is unlikely he would have emerged the man who then became President e.g. “I am highly optimistic, even behind prison walls I can see the heavy clouds and the blue sky over the horizon.”
- Growth Mindset – a flexibility and openness, adjusting personal expectations depending on what is thrown your way and constantly being willing to learn and develop.
Throughout his life Mandela questioned, observed, reflected, learnt and adjusted his mindset. Rather than leave prison a bitter person, he emerged a wiser and more rounded individual e.g. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
- Persistence – the ability to keep on going whatever is thrown at you.
Mandela kept focused on his mission throughout his life. He had an utter belief in his vision of creating a better South Africa e.g. “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
- Strong Social Network – having strong interpersonal relationships and being willing to ask for help.
Mandela formed deep bonds with a range of people, even one of his prison guards from Robben Island, Christo Brand. Such was the depth of their friendship that Brand describes feeling like “He’d lost a father” when Mandela died.
- Emotional Awareness – an ability to understand and accept emotions, to manage rather than deny, suppress or give in to them. This may mean being sad, but not letting the sadness linger.
Mandela faced negative emotions but he didn’t let them overcome him e.g. “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
A leader who has Emotional Resilience can perform even when the going gets tough, they can shoulder the responsibilities that they take on with the role. But we all need it, and in my next blog I’ll talk about how we can get more ‘bounce-back-ability’.
N.B. It’s important to understand that someone who is mentally ill won’t simply be able to ‘snap out of’ his or her condition by thinking differently. There may be a genetic or chemical component to their illness that needs to be addressed, alongside learning to approach their thoughts in an alternative way. This does not make them weak. e.g. successful people from every walk of life may be emotionally resilient yet still suffer from bouts of depression.
Links and References
Conversations with Myself, Nelson Mandela
Stein MB, Campbell-Sills L, Gelernter J (2009) Genetic Variation in 5HTTLPR is Associated with Emotional Resilience. American Journal of Medical Genetics, Oct 5; 150B(7): 900–906.