On Friday March 20, the DJIA closed at 19,174. That was down more than 35% from its peak in February. For a point of reference, this is about the same decline that we experienced in all of 2008, in just one month. The impact has been equally large and dramatic in just about every aspect of how we live and work. Never has it been more clear that we live in a VUCA world. For those of you who are unfamiliar with that acronym, it is a concept that originated with students at the U.S. Army War College to describe the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the world after the Cold War. At this point, the Cold War looks like child’s play compared to our current situation.

Why Resilience Matters

Resilience is the antidote to our VUCA world. Now, more than ever we need to rely on, and continue to develop, our resilience to help our companies and our teams navigate in this crisis. Resilience is what allows leaders and teams to be calm, steady, and resolute in times of challenge or crisis. It provides for greater agility and flexibility. It enables us to keep our eyes and energy on a better future. It gives us the opportunity to collaborate even more effectively with our colleagues.

Resilience can be easy to see and understand when we think about people like Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill,  and Albert Einstein – who was told by a teacher that he “would never be able to do anything that would make sense in this life.” We’ve seen it in many business leaders like Steve Jobs, Akiro Morita and Henry Ford – who went broke 5 times before starting the Ford Motor Company. If you look closely enough, you see it all around – especially today with the tens of thousands of healthcare providers who are working overtime to keep us healthy.  

If you look even closer, you will see your own resilience. One of the interesting facts we learned in studying resilience in the workplace is that most of us have a great deal of grit, determination and strength.

How Resilience Can Help in Times of Crisis

In 2012 I co-authored a book on the topic: “Lemonade, The Leader’s Guide to Resilience at Work.” We researched thousands of business leaders and developed a model of resilience that includes 15 leadership behaviors that can help leaders to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

My favorite of these resilient behaviors is reframing. Reframing is the ability to find a silver lining no matter how dire the situation. It is the ability to choose how you talk about the facts and create a context for yourself and for others to see them differently. For instance, if you live in Mauritius, you can call it “a small, insignificant island.” Or you can call it “the largest ocean state in the world.” 

In the context of our current crisis, you could be talking about how “physical distancing” is creating a feeling of isolation. Or you could talk about the opportunities it presents for us all to learn to use collaboration technologies to both get our work done and not feel so isolated. Both are actually “true” in some objective sense. But the ability to reframe a problem or challenge into the more positive perspective makes it more possible for people to take action. In this example, your team will be able to see and embrace the opportunity more readily in learning the new technologies and feel less fear as they sit in their new home offices with no context besides the news.

Think of the benefits of applying this to thinking about how to pivot the business to weather the storm. What new business models, markets, partnerships might be out there waiting for you to uncover?

Reframing as a Business Imperative

The ability to reframe reminds me of an executive I advised a few years ago. Scott was (and still is) a very experienced and successful leader in his organization. He had a reputation for turning around projects and programs that were underperforming. He had a strategic mind, a keen attention to detail and very high standards for performance. Scott was seen as potentially one of the organization’s senior-most leaders in the future. But something was holding him back. His high standards and intense drive translated into zero tolerance for mistakes.

When mistakes happened, as they always do, Scott adopted a rigid and unyielding attitude. He simply could not see the learning opportunity that mistakes can present. The people who worked most closely with Scott learned to follow his lead. Some of his people were actively hiding or ignoring mistakes out of fear of Scott’s reactions. This created a dynamic that suppressed any kind of productive problem solving and Scott was operating in the dark about problems cropping up.

This all came to a head when the company lost one of its biggest customers. This customer moved its business to another supplier because in their own words, “you kept making the same mistakes and you haven’t kept up with changes in our business.” This was shocking to Scott, who hadn’t realized there were problems with this customer, and that his team didn’t have the capability to solve the problems. This proved to be a much-needed wake-up call for Scott. He was forced to learn to view mistakes differently, to reframe them as learning opportunities. In doing so, he created a different mindset in himself and his team. He went on to become an even more successful and accomplished leader. His mantra became a quote from one of his heroes, General Omar Bradley, who said, “I learned that good judgment comes from experience and that experience grows out of mistakes.”

How to Reframe

There is a simple practice you can use to build your own ability to reframe. You can even invite colleagues or your team to join you in this exercise. Try this the next time you encounter a problem.

  • Draw a line down the center of a page.
  • On one side the headline is “challenges.”
  • On the other is “opportunities.”
  • Your task is to re-write the problems as possibilities.

Doing so will give you, and those you are tasked with leading, more energy to get through and even to accelerate through this unprecedented crisis.

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