For some people, it’s a dull flat feeling of being stuck. For others, it’s a frantic sense of never enough time, working hard but spinning your wheels. Or it could be felt as an angry cynicism about missing out or giving up on long held aspirations. While we each feel this IT differently, we all know what it is not. It is not feeling ready or able to adapt in our lives. We may yearn to express and become more of who we deeply are, but feel blocked or frustrated in our ability to do so.
This ability to adaptively change course in response to stress and adversity, or to recover quickly from difficulties is called “resilience”. Psychologists have identified a number of personal factors that contribute to resilience, including an optimistic attitude, the ability to regulate emotions and the capacity to view failures as useful feedback. And leaders must take on the responsibility of building a resilient team, guiding their organization in its ability to resist, absorb and respond to highly disruptive changes. 
In my coaching and consulting experience, this lack of personal resilience and how it damages the ability to generate sustained performance is a core issue for many people. Sometimes resilience comes from learning new skills or knowledge, or it can be found by moving from a risk-aversion attitude toward an opportunity attitude Many training courses and leadership competency models are geared towards adding to people’s knowledge base – like filling you up with skills. This is like filling up a glass with water and can be essential.
But for many people, this feeling of overwhelm and lack of resilience comes not from what they know, or don’t know, but it comes from how they know. The overwhelm is bred in the ways in which they make meaning and understand the world. They are like an already full glass, with water now flowing over the top. Adding more knowledge will not help. The limits are the size of the glass – the “size of the mind”. Only a bigger glass will hold more water.
Even Adults Can Grow Up
This may sound intractable, IF you assume that once we reach adulthood, we don’t fundamentally change or “grow up” any more. Fortunately, a robust body of research has now demonstrated that adults can grow in successive stages of development, much as healthy children almost always do. In this process of “vertical development”, our way of understanding the world can broaden and deepen in a series of well defined stages. This meta-capacity of vertical leadership development enables us to better deploy the knowledge we already possess, to become more comfortable with ambiguity, to think longer term, to discern patterns of connections in mountains of data and to engage and empathize with increasingly diverse stakeholders. It is like we have increased the size of the glass – or the size of our mind. It is increasing our capacity in the broadest sense of the word.
What has this got to do with personal resilience? For deep or ongoing issues, as the Einstein quote says, “no problem can be resolved from the same level of consciousness that created it”. When the size of the glass increases, it is able to hold more. When your way of understanding the world becomes more complex, or your behaviour more agile, what used to overwhelm you – no longer does. As a client completing her coaching program recently said, “They no longer seem like big problems. And I can sleep well at night!”
Development = Challenge + Support + Experiments
So how do you grow your capacity to respond adaptively to challenges – to grow your resilience? Generally, it involves “challenge + support + experiments”.
The challenges are probably already coming at you from life or from work!
The support can come from a variety of sources. A coaching approach that understands the leverage points of vertical leadership development can help, such as the Full Span™ method. You could also seek mentors who are not only knowledgeable, but seem to “have a certain magic” or respond to challenges with creativity, insight or surprising ways of thinking or behaving. It may mean deliberately changing who you hang out with, avoiding “recreational complainers” or people who reinforce your current ways and views.
The experiments are experiments in new ways of thinking, relating to others and doing. Of course, each experiment will be unique to you as a person, your challenges and your circumstances. Here are some general ideas.
- Find a way to probe the perspective of people you don’t normally associate with. Deliberately visit or engage with a different part of your company, or read a different political point of view, or eat at a restaurant in a different neighbourhood. Ask yourself, “I wonder why they say/ do that?” Hint: If you find yourself muttering, “It’s because they’re idiots!” – you’re off track!
- Start a practice of “reflection in action”. When you find yourself saying or doing something automatically that really doesn’t serve you well, step back a bit. Ask yourself, “What just happened here?”
- When you’re facing a conflict situation, ask yourself, “What new information is to be learned from these different points of view?”
- Pay attention to your habitual body posture or tone of voice and deliberately experiment with a new body language that will send different signals. If you often lean forward , try sitting back in your chair. If you speak softly, try a louder tone – that will seem very weird at first!
And above all, keep up hope! Things don’t have to remain the same. Prolonged stress is not inevitable. People can and do grow at all ages of life. With the right support and experimental actions, you too can grow into a larger, more robust and resilient version of who you deeply are.
 Joiner, B. Leadership Agility, A Global Imperative. Duke, December 2013-February 2014