Resiliency: An Essential Leadership Skill

Resiliency: An Essential Leadership Skill
Philip W. Holmes
Virginia Commonwealth University – EdD (Leadership) 2016 Cohort
Resiliency: An Essential Leadership Skill
As the author prepares to enter the third semester of his doctoral program (and thus
approaches the end of his first full year of doctoral study), it is appropriate to review his progress
and to draw preliminary conclusions about the leadership skills that are essential for leaders in
general, and the leadership skills that are essential for the author in particular. These conclusions
will be based primarily on the author’s experience over the past two semesters and on a focused
literature review.
Several months ago, I stepped for the first time into a doctoral-level classroom. After
many years of wanting to begin doctoral work, I was finally able to align personal, professional,
and family resources and begin work on my doctorate in leadership at VCU. I walked into that
classroom on that first day with a head full of an odd mixture of information about doctoral
study, pulled from my research, my imagination, general lore about doctoral study, and the
wisdom and warnings from friends and colleagues who had attained that level of academic
success. I also walked into that classroom with a practitioner’s view of the study of leadership,
over two decades of experience with helping others learn how to lead, and extensive feedback
from managers and peers on my own leadership skills.
Some of the ideas about leadership that were in my head that first day have been retained,
and others have been jettisoned. In the petty maelstrom of the last several months, I have learned
a great deal about leadership because of what I have read, digested, analyzed, and presented, and
also because of what I have experienced. I have balanced intellectual understanding with
personal, visceral understanding (that is, from tough lessons and hard knocks). I have seen
conclusions jump out at me from the pages of my textbooks, and I have grudgingly accepted
conclusions that arose painfully from the uneven personal experiences of my first year of
doctoral work.
I entered this program thinking that successful leaders draw from the standard well of
leadership skills – the skills that are laid out in the Likert scale of our 360-degree feedback
report: setting direction, teamwork, sensitivity, judgment, results orientation, organizational
ability, oral communication, written communication, developing others, and understanding one’s
own strengths and weaknesses. To be fair, these are important leadership skills, and if the
leaders that I work with had these in abundance, my job would be easier. If I had these in
abundance, I would likely not need this doctorate.
But after studying my 360-degree feedback results, reflecting on the variegated
personalities, skills, and preferences of my fellow cohort members, and considering the waves of
organizational, industrial, cultural, managerial, and personal change that have at some times
made my individual skills in great demand at my company, and at other times have made them
worthy of disregard, I am no longer sure that such a list is enough. I wonder whether it will ever
be appropriate or sensible to create a list of essential leadership traits. Such lists are just
snapshots in the fast-forward film of American leadership.
I have concluded that in this fast-forward film of American leadership, it is impossible to
avoid situations where one’s best will not be good enough. Despite one’s best efforts, there will
always come a day when the world will require A, and one will only have B or C in one’s quiver.
There will come a day when the suite of skills that one has always wielded successfully will not
be sufficient. There will come a day when – despite one’s best efforts – organizational,
industrial, cultural, managerial, and personal changes will conspire, and the threat of failure will
rise darkly over one’s head. On that day, the leader will need to change, and the ability to change
will be more important than the change itself. On that day, resiliency will be the most essential
leadership characteristic.
The most effective leaders are those leaders who move forward not just when
circumstances fit their personalities, but when circumstances do not. The most effective leaders
are those leaders who can see the goal ahead even when the noise and smoke of our chaotic lives
make that goal difficult to discern. The most effective leaders are those leaders who absorb the
possibility or actuality of failure, and change – and find in that experience of change something
new, good, and worthwhile to grasp and absorb. I have not always been resilient – there have
been several times over the past several months when I was definitely not resilient – and so I
have focused on resiliency as the most essential (and often overlooked) leadership skill.
Literature Review - Resiliency
Definition of Resiliency
Researchers generally agree that resiliency is the ability to cope with one or more
difficult and challenging stressors (Casey, 2011; Garcia-Dia, DiNapoli, Garcia-Ona, Jakubowski,
& O’Flaherty, 2013). Christman & McClellan (2008) summarized resiliency as “an adaptive and
coping trait that forms and hones positive character skills, such as patience, tolerance,
responsibility, compassion, determination, and risk taking” (p. 7). Christman & McClellan
(2008) further noted that many of these skills “seem to run counter to the socially constructed
concept of masculine leadership” (p. 7). In his review of the US Army’s recent Comprehensive
Soldier Fitness program (designed to improve resilience throughout the Army), Casey (2011)
noted that the “prevailing view among many within our ranks is that having problems with stress
[i.e., not being resilient]…is not only inconsistent with being a warrior but also a sign of
weakness” (p. 2). No other research in the review explicitly tied resiliency with either feminine
or masculine traits; however, it appears to be an interesting and potentially fruitful direction for
future research to follow.
Essential to the concept of resilience is the presence or likelihood of adversity or a
serious threat, and also the adaptive response which that adversity or threat provokes (Christman
& McClellan, 2008; Garcia-Dia, et al., 2013; Gu & Day, 2013; Norman, Luthans, & Luthans,
2005). Individuals who respond in a resilient manner to a threat or a challenge are supposed by
definition to be improved by the act of being resilient, at least insofar as their ability to be
resilient in the future is concerned (Harland, Harrison, Jones, & Reiter-Palmon, 2005; Christman
& McClellan, 2008; Yonezawa, Jones, & Singer, 2011). While early research on resiliency
focused on certain key traits that were supposed to exist in resilient individuals, Yonezawa, et al.
(2011) noted that current research focuses on the “adaptive processes” that help people work
through difficult situations and become resilient (p. 916).
Drath (2001) posited three central tasks of leadership – setting direction, creating and
maintaining commitment, and facing adaptive challenge. The latter task is specifically
connected to the concept of resiliency, because it includes the notion of adaptation (the
requirement that the individual must change in response to an adaptive or radical challenge). For
Drath, an adaptive challenge is one that “causes confusion,” because it represents a challenge
that has not been encountered before; more to the point, an adaptive challenge is one that forces
the individual or the group to change in order to respond to it, and thus it requires the exercise of
resiliency (p. 21).
While resiliency is partly innate (that is, it is based in part on numerous individual traits,
the exact listing of which tends to vary from researcher to researcher), it is also partly under the
control of individuals – either by virtue of a conscious decision to hone or learn key coping
skills, to seek or nurture family and social supports, or to take advantage of assistance offered by
one’s organization or community (Christman & McClellan, 2008; Garcia-Dia, et al., 2013; Gu &
Day, 2013; Harland, et al., 2005). Garcia-Dia, et al. noted that a “combination of psychosocial
elements and biological predispositions… help to define what is now known as resilience,” and
that a mixture of “external and internal factors… cultivate resilience” (p. 265).
Gu and Day (2013) further suggested that among the internal and external factors that
collude to create a resilient response to a threat or adversity, more personal and idiosyncratic
aspects of one’s emotional and psychological makeup must be included. In their study of
resilient teachers in Great Britain (2013), they concluded that “resilience in teachers is the
capacity to manage the unavoidable uncertainties inherent in the realities of teaching,” and that
resilience “is driven by teachers’ educational purposes and moral values” (p. 39). Yonezawa, et
al (2011) echoed this conclusion, and included morality among the characteristics found in
resilient teachers. Smith & Roysircar (2010) also included “communal or collective values”
among the factors related to resiliency found in African-American professionals (specifically
past presidents of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development), as well as
mentors (p. 248).
It is important to note that peer-reviewed articles on resiliency and leadership efficacy are
relatively uncommon. Harland, et al. (2005) directly stated that there were not able to find any
“empirical research directly linking resilience and leadership,” though numerous authors have
“theorized a link between leadership and resilience” (p. 4). Norman, et al. (2005) noted
increased interest in the connection between resiliency and leadership, which is spilling over into
the corporate world, with companies like Hewlett-Packard beginning to train their employees to
be more resilient. Christman and McClellan (2008), Gu and Day (2013), and Yonezawa, et al.
(2011) all studied the impact of resilience on teacher effectiveness in particular, and for our
purposes here there is no reason to assume that the lessons learned by resilient teachers (who
lead in their classrooms) are not applicable to the principals who manage them or to managers
and leaders in other industries and fields.
In the last decade, research in the fields of psychology and human resource development
has begun to add interesting points of view to the study of resiliency. Norman, et al. (2005)
noted the launch in 1998 of the “positive psychology movement” by Martin Seligman (at that
time, President of the American Psychological Association), dedicated to giving “attention to
what is right with people instead of concentrating on what was wrong with people” (p. 57).
Researchers in allied fields quickly moved to find practical applications of positive psychology.
For example, Fred Luthans in 2002 posited a new field of inquiry called Positive Organizational
Behavior, or POB, focusing “on states that can be developed and managed for performance
improvement of individuals and organizations” (Norman, et al., 2005, p. 57). Resiliency was one
of those states of focus; when combined with hope, optimism, and efficacy, it formed “what
Luthans and colleagues call positive psychological capital, or simply PsyCap” (Norman, et al.,
2005, p. 57).
The research into positive psychological capital and its potential impact on individuals
and organizations across all fields and industries is in its early stages; however, preliminary
findings suggest that hopeful and resilient leaders can have a kind of “contagion effect” with
their employees, and that “employees perceive the leader’s hope and take on this hope state,”
which “affects their resiliency and the overall organization’s resiliency” (Norman, et al., 2005, p.
60). Norman, et al. (2005) concluded that it will be important “to study these POB states of hope
and resiliency and find ways to systematically develop them within individuals and overall
organizations” (p. 62).
Best Practices
While the earliest research on resiliency suggested that effective resilient responses
among people were uncommon, more recent research indicated that the opposite is more likely,
and that people who exhibit effective resilient responses to adversity and other challenges are not
at all exceptional (Norman, et al., 2005). But, despite the fact that experiences of resiliency are
likely more common than earlier research suggested (which therefore also suggests the existence
of far more potential research subjects than earlier researchers had anticipated), research on
actual best practices related to resiliency are not legion, and when found are far more general
than specific.
As noted in the previous section, Norman et al. (2005) concluded that further research to
“find ways to systematically develop [hope and resiliency] within individuals and organizations”
is crucial (p. 62); however, at this point, research has focused on proving the importance of hope
and resiliency in the workplace, and not on exactly how to make people and organizations more
hopeful and resilient.
Nearly all research in this review has indicated that inherent character traits are essential
to resiliency; however, the actual list of essential traits has varied from study to study. As noted
above, Christman and McClellan (2008) indicated that “positive character skills, such as
patience, tolerance, responsibility, compassion, determination, and risk taking” are essential to
resiliency, (p. 7) and for our purposes here, the key is not so much the individual skills noted, but
rather the overarching category of “positive character skills.”
In addition to these internal factors (these positive character skills), the successfully
resilient individual (leader) must also rely on external supports (Christman & McClellan, 2008;
Garcia-Dia, et al., 2013; Gu & Day, 2013; Harland, et al., 2005). Much work remains, however,
to determine which external supports are most helpful, and how their influence is best applied.
Strengths and Limitations of Resiliency
The strengths or benefits of resiliency are clear, given its definition: that is, the ability to
respond effectively to a real or perceived threat or episode of adversity, and to emerge from that
response with a greater ability to weather future threats or periods of adversity. Simply put, the
research uncovered in this review indicated that resilient individuals have positive impacts on
their organizations, and after they exhibit the ability to be resilient, they are stronger and more
effective in their personal and professional lives (Casey, 2011; Christman & McClellan, 2008;
Garcia-Dia, et al., 2013; Gu & Day, 2013; Harland, et al., 2005; Norman, Luthans, & Luthans,
2005; Smith & Roysircar, 2010; Yonezawa, et al., 2011). The literature does not address,
however, the limitations of resiliency.
The first response to the suggestion that there might be limitations to the ability to
respond effectively to threats or periods of adversity would likely be skepticism. It is difficult to
imagine rational benefits for decreasing any individual’s or leader’s ability to weather threats or
adversity, and no research advocating that point of view was uncovered during this review. Yet,
the definition of resiliency presupposes the existence of sub-optimum conditions. To be resilient,
one must be faced with threats or adversity, and in an optimum environment or organization,
such threats or episodes of adversity would be limited or curtailed.
In any field or industry, conditions will vary. Individuals or leaders will sometimes
encounter workplace conditions that are amenable to their happiness and growth, and sometimes
they will encounter workplace conditions that are in opposition to their happiness and growth.
This variation is to be expected, and is usually the result of changing circumstances that are
outside of their control (different jobs, different managers, different responsibilities).
But, leaders will also sometimes encounter conditions that are in opposition to their
happiness and growth because of flaws, weaknesses, or problems within their organizations. At
these times, leaders have a special responsibility to push back against their organizations,
because the people who report to those leaders rely on them to do so. In these cases, resilient
leaders might actually be avoiding their responsibility to give feedback to their senior leadership
about conditions that are not episodic (and therefore expected as a matter of course), but are
actually the result of poor decisions made by those senior leaders.
Gu and Day (2013) noted that “the widely used definition of resilience as the capacity to
‘bounce back’ in adverse circumstances is inadequate to describe the nature of resilience in
teachers,” because “it fails to reveal and reflect the uncertain and unpredictable circumstances
and scenarios which form the main feature of teachers’ everyday lives” (p. 39). For these
researchers, the older definitions of resiliency – which rested on the assumption of intermittent or
only occasional threats or periods of adversity – did not correlate with the more chronic
pressures faced by contemporary teachers. Gu and Day (2013) further noted that “uncertain and
unpredictable circumstances and scenarios” are no longer intermittent or episodic, and are “an
inherent part of the nature of teaching and present a constant intellectual and emotional challenge
to teach to their best” (p. 39). This research suggests that the ability to be resilient is no longer
an occasional benefit for teachers, but rather an expected or baseline skill.
In his exploration of the need for the US Army to become more resilient, Casey (2011)
noted that “persistent conflict” is the new normal situation for those dedicated to the defense of
the United States, and added that “protracted confrontation among state, non-state, and
individual actors who are increasingly willing to use violence to accomplish their political and
ideological objectives” is the hallmark of the current era, and “we in the Army cannot determine
when this era of persistent conflict is going to end” (p. 1).
Norman et al. (2005) noted the possibility of a “resiliency gap” in American business,
resulting from the fact that “as the world around us changes more quickly than ever before,
employees, leaders, and overall organizations are struggling to keep up and manage their
resilience” (p. 55). This conclusion meshes with the conclusion raised by Bolman and Deal
(2008), who noted that “the world of most managers and administrators is a world of messes:
complexity, ambiguity, value dilemmas, political pressures, and multiple constituencies” (p. 41).
The findings of these researchers constitute a clear call for greater appreciation of the
characteristic or trait of resiliency, and for greater study of how that trait or characteristic can be
uncovered, honed, or improved.
All of these researchers contend that the current environment in education and in business
is one in which threat and adversity are not episodic, or intermittent, or unusual; rather, threats
and adversity are normal, expected, and unlikely to fade away. In such an environment, the
ability to be resilient is not a luxury for any responsible leader.
Harland et al. (2005), in their study of leadership behaviors and subordinate resilience,
recount the history of Ernest Shackelton, a British explorer who was trapped along with his crew
in the Antarctic between 1914 and 1916 on their ship Endurance, some twelve hundred miles
from civilization (p. 2). During the early years of the twentieth century, many expeditions
explored both the north and the south poles. While nearly every other polar expedition of that
exuberant (if somewhat ill-prepared) exploratory time period was marred by loss of life, every
single member of the crew of the Endurance survived. Harland et al. (2005) attribute this
remarkable accomplishment “to the leadership of Ernest Shackelford, whose leadership
behaviors fueled the resilience of his stranded crew over and over again during their almost twoyear ordeal” (p. 2).
The average manager or leader does not face the life or death struggles of an Ernest
Shackelton. But, as Harland et al. (2005) noted, “all leaders are likely to face situations where
employees experience setbacks and challenges,” and everyone “has an Antarctic” (p. 2). They
concluded that how “people respond to workplace setbacks is a function of resilience,” and
asked, “do leaders make a difference in helping employees become more resilient in the face of
their own ‘Antarctics’?” (p. 2). The author believes strongly that leaders can make that
difference for their employees, as long as they focus first on their own ability to be resilient.
The members of this cohort were surprised to learn that they had an intersession
assignment, as it was not in the syllabus of either of their courses in the fall of 2013. The fall
semester was our first full semester of doctoral study, and most of us approached the end of the
year as exhausted as we were fulfilled. The realization that our holiday break would have
another research paper hanging over it was not a happy one.
I cannot deny that I have wrestled with this paper, in large part because of a deep personal
sense that its assignment was unnecessary and to some extent reflective of academic pettiness.
At the same time, the assignment has forced me to examine my personal, vocational, and
academic responsibilities more closely than I had ever expected, and through clenched teeth, I
must admit that I am grateful for this opportunity to approach, apprehend, and value my own
ability to be resilient.
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