Does this sound familiar?
“I led my company to incredible quarter over quarter growth for five years straight. And then I didn’t.”
“My startup needs to pivot — again.”
“I worked for years perfecting and bringing a product to market, released it to great fanfare, and it was a market flop.”
Working in and around Silicon Valley means serving clients who achieve massive successes and, even more often, face significant failures. Success has its own challenges, but for most of us, failure casts the longer shadow. With the economic growth of the past eight years, many teams are populated with leaders who have limited experience with failure, and the question of resilience is on the mind of many CEOs. How do I build resilient leaders and a resilient organization? How do I, myself, become more resilient?
According to Merriam-Webster, resilience is the “ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” I once studied with a master martial arts instructor. He never seemed to be off-balance. When I pointed that out, he responded: “I lose my balance as often as do you, I just come back to center more quickly.”
This leaves us with an interesting question. If getting off-balance is inevitable, and getting back to center more quickly is the art of resilience, what’s the process that brings us back to center faster? In my experience as a CEO coach and strategy consultant — and in my own life — I’ve found that the most resilient leaders have a two-part playbook for bouncing back. They don’t collapse in the face of failure. Rather, they stumble and take very intentional actions to bring themselves back to center.
First and foremost, they take the time to actually experience their fear or concern. They don’t shy away from the emotional impact of the situation, taking the time to process, but neither do they dwell in it. Depending on the situation. By embracing the limbic reaction without trying to fix it, many leaders notice that negative emotions naturally dissipate. There’s an old Buddhist adage that says “what we resist persists.” In surrendering to the emotional response, rather than fighting it, we notice that it’s frequently not as painful as predicted. They experience their experience.
While letting the emotion run its course helps, it is not enough on its own to build resilience. What’s most essential is a process of inquiry built around three focused questions:
1. How is this outcome ideal?
2. What can I see that I didn’t see before?
3. What actions are now available to me?
Answering this series of questions moves us out of the limbic state by giving power to the frontal cortex. We move from reaction to decisive action, and we regain our sense of agency.
We first sit in the question “How is this outcome actually ideal?” In the face of significant disappointment this can be difficult, but there is truth in the saying “Every cloud has a silver lining.” Note that finding the upside is not an equivocation or justification, it’s simply finding the benefit in the experience. People acknowledge that what they once believed was terrible luck often becomes a crucial turning point.
I learned this lesson personally during the 2008 financial crash. We had built our NYC office around our main client, Lehman Brothers, and its failure was expensive for our firm both financially and emotionally. I wasn’t sure we’d recover. Once I got past the shock, I realized that I was spending a lot of time going back and forth to New York from San Francisco, keeping me away from home. I had just had my first child, and until I was home with him, I hadn’t realized how much I’d been away. With no New York office and no Lehman Brothers, I was able to spend much more time with him. Had I missed that stage of my son’s life, I might have come to regret it.
The next question is “What can I now see that I didn’t see prior to this failure or shortcoming?” Success rarely triggers reflection or introspection, but failure does. In Lehman’s downfall, I saw that I had been overly optimistic about its sustainability and downplayed the connection between the macro environment and our business strategy. I saw that we had ignored well-documented lessons about that risk to professional services firms from over-concentration. I also hadn’t seen that we were overextended with the weekly travel to New York, or the toll that was taking on the team. Through this experience, I saw how much I resisted saying no to a sexy client project, no matter the risk or downside.
The third question is “What actions are available to me based on that new insight?” With my new perspective, I intentionally reprioritized to spend more time with family. Our firm leadership sat down, regrouped and strategized about how to build the firm in a more sustainable way that honors all parts of our lives and diversifies risk. Having lived through this colossal failure, I learned that failure is not fatal, and what I now see is that over a long-time horizon, significant failures will happen. What’s been the greatest gift of all has been gaining the ability to empathize with others in those moments when they, themselves, are facing a crisis and to have patience in the face of the storm.
Intentionally following and applying this playbook cultivates resilience in ourselves and our teams. We become curious about failure’s value and move to a place where we see the whole equation with greater balance. When people get stuck in the limbic state, their cognitive bandwidth for creative thinking is limited — exactly the opposite of what is needed when regrouping and carving a new path. Looking for what’s “perfect” in the existing situation carves out the space for us to discover new insights and find new actions that weren’t available to us when we were overwhelmed by feelings of fear.
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