The Resilience Illusion in the Volatility Apocalypse

We live in a world where change is constant.. Our society has become a place where uncertainty, change, agility, volatility, ambiguity is the new normal. Our leaders are required to develop resilience….

I don’t even know what this stuff means any more… if I ever did.

We bluster on about leadership like it’s A Thing. With traits. Is this true or simply driven by a whole industry devoted to codifying behaviour and selling stuff that might make you more effective in a leadership context… possibly?
If leadership is anything, it’s probably more an action, an intention, an experience.
Try making a qualification out of that.
Leadership is more often about power and circumstance. It’s sometimes earned, sometimes taken. It’s complicated and important…. not something to take lightly… and I’m damned if I could codify and sell it – but then this is why I’ll never be a rich woman.

Perhaps we are living in a volatile world but it’s richer than that…..am I alone in getting bored with the fear-mongering of this particular now-familiar rhetoric? It’s giving me nothing…. If I look around, I can see volatility, for sure… and if I looked for certainty, for routine and rhythm, for predictability and cause-and-effect – I can find that too… but that’s a lot less juicy, I guess.

The subtext to the “volatility and ambiguity” trope seems to be that in order to “survive” we need leaders to be more resilient and tough-minded – It seems these people alone can survive the uncertainty apocalypse…
Nice. Neat.
I’d like to buy that… only I really can’t…it feels cold.

Seemingly we need leaders with resilience – as in bounce-back-ability – What is valued is your ability to recover in the face of lifestuff, your ability to perform your duties without falling over, your ability to work within uncertainty, to navigate your way through and cope- I get that, get how it’s useful…. and good on you if you have it, or if/ as you develop it….
As one who sees herself as pretty resilient, I know there are times it is a good friend to me…But possibly less-so for the people around me……because…what about everyone else? Whilst we are busy being resilient and pushing through, what happens in our wake? To the folk around us? What about the thousands of employees these resilient power-rangers lead? What if non-leaders aren’t resilient?
Who cares?
Seriously… I’m asking…If leaders have built up their resilience and tolerance to uncertainty who cares or notices those who haven’t?
What if leadership decisions (from a place of being resilient and able to cope) are really really bad for most people?
What if decisions made by a bunch of people who have mental and emotional toughness are horribly skewed and inconsiderate?
What if this push for resilient leaders is actually causing some of the divisions we see within our organisations and society? What if our leaders are actually creating volatility and uncertainty, just in the way they are being?

What I can see as being valued in business circles, which concerns me greatly, is a slightly more complex version of the rough-tough Just F*cking Do It leader that we blatantly pointed at as an unreconstructed, damaging, command and control horror show quite some time ago. It was a lot about: cut through. Be Strong. Get It Done. Crash about a lot. Don’t stop. Don’t listen… and folk got hurt.
Now it’s a little more insidiously dressed up: be resilient, be mindful, cope….and is organisational life much better?
I’m not really sure about this.

Does “resilience” include valuing connection, relationship, generosity, empathy, compassion? Probably not, because surely being some of these things makes you less resilient? You become wide open to the full consequence of a massive restructure where folk lose jobs.. what that does to people, to the culture.. or you begin to notice the huge pay differences in your organisation. That realisation can be deeply deeply disturbing in a way … because what can you do? Your leadership power, your influence, your personal resilience suddenly has a limit…best to mindfully crack on, rather than address the mess fully?
It’s the red pill/ blue pill conundrum. Open up? or Close down?

If you are open, you are, typically, less resilient.. that makes sense, right?…. you feel…. you empathise… things hurt…it stops you in your tracks….it’s deeply human, very very disconcerting and takes a lot longer to work through than just cracking on..
And it is BLOODY inconvenient….. but the truth is from there – from a place of being humbled, a place of empathy and understanding, you see a way to look after you & yours AND work hard to offer the very best for the folk you lead and affect.. Things get simpler. You can get bigger.
I think a little less resilient is good.
Only you can’t tell folk that… they have to experience it…. it’s the most annoying Catch 22 of my professional life.

My favourite leaders are those who deploy their resilience to connect-not-distance. In the face of organisational bastardness they pile in and hold open spaces for ethical, social and relational debate. They challenge with heart and head. They put themselves in the picture, not remove themselves from it. Those are folk who look into themselves, hold themselves accountable, and they grow…. these are not leaders who wait for a Public Inquiry or the Shareholder meeting to rap them on the knuckles for being unfair, unethical or uninclusive. These are leaders who use their powers partly to personally crack on, but partly to stand within their Boards and decision-making spaces, saying “I know we can, but should we?” Or “I think we need to listen to the staff/ residents/ folk whose lives will be fundamentally shifted by this decision”
I genuinely think more of this would go some way to addressing some of the bonkers societal things we are currently witnessing… including volatility and uncertainty.

My favourite coaches and facilitators insist on leaders “showing up”… the best I know don’t sooth and calm and encourage their clients to ignore the gaping holes in front of them. They don’t encourage resilience, they insist on cracking the neat facades & pushing for the red-pill of personal honesty. They know that deep wisdom, proper resilience, comes from facing into the truth of a situation… and living with what lies beyond … they challenge clients to look, to listen, encouraging more honesty, courage, self-reflection and personal accountability.

Then there are the L&D / OD people who are prepared to take risks with Leadership Development and put leaders right INTO the consequences of their decisions, not shielding them from it… Often they get push-back. Often this means it’s good work. This is where we need to be resilient… where we need to equip ourselves and work on ourselves and be a positive part of a solution….

I guess what I’m saying is, there are multiple ways we can make a positive difference to our organisations and to wider society. It’s not about sealing ourselves off. It really really isn’t.
It’s resilience, not from a place of “it hurts and it’s gnarly and I don’t want to look at it” but from a place of – “this hurts and it’s gnarly and we face into it and contribute to it getting better”
Never have we more needed the tools and time for these conversations.

Surely this is leadership for volatile times..where the illusion of resilience is held lightly…. Where we value personal maturity, ethical conduct and an inability to just F*cking do it… where we don’t resist, but we yield and listen…..and we appreciate that uncertainty is certain, so at least that’s one less thing to concern ourselves with…

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Addendum:
I’ve frequently facilitated conversations between Boards and the folk they are there to serve….it disturbs and inspires. After one recent session, a very cross Non-Exec approached me at the end and said he’d hated the process because “I really don’t like to have to listen to all of this…”
We didn’t get into conversation, but I rather hope he slept badly that night having heard what he did…I asked the Chair (who also didn’t particularly like to listen to all of this, but understood the need to and the poor decision-making that was happening, precisely because they weren’t listening) to talk to him later… to see if this listening thing had made an impact on the Non Exec.. or if he chose to be resilient to the dissent and crack on….