“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

—Samuel Beckett

Earlier this fall, I attended a GEN (Ret.) Martin Dempsey lecture to West Point Cadets on leadership and building a meaningful life. His first visual to support the lecture was this simple line from novelist, Samuel Beckett, with a black and white photo of a WWI Doughboy assaulting from a trench. Dempsey’s argument: you, as a leader, must be the period between those two thoughts. You must lead and inspire your Soldiers from a place where they think they cannot go on toward a resolute “I will go on” – in life, our professional missions, and in our own continued growth and development. I’ve thought on this point often since that lecture. Not only must leaders model resiliency themselves, but also develop it in others. Further, I continue to reflect on the fact that in a lecture on “building a meaningful life,” Dempsey’s first point addressed the importance of personal and collective resiliency.

The value of resiliency and leadership is further compounded by research reporting that grit is more important to success than physical or mental abilities, which Dr. Angela Duckworth expands on in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. I view resilience and grit as synonyms, and while there is not a universal definition of grit or resilience, Duckworth and team’s description resonates with me: “demonstrating passion and perseverance for long-term goals of personal significance.” As leaders, how do we make our team or organization’s mission personally significant to our people and then lead them to have an enduring commitment to it? I think this is the essence of leadership and resilience.

Like most things in life, leadership, and personal habits, resilience is a muscle. It strengthens as we train and build it, but atrophies when not stressed. Resilience is a skill that can and should be taught, trained, reinforced, and then leveraged both in our personal lives and our teams for long-term success.

Common Competencies of Resilience

Just as there are 100 different definitions of leadership, there are many varying views on resilience. Below are common competencies of resilience shared across research and experiences.

  • Self-Awareness & Self-Regulation: It is critical for individuals and teams to accurately identify stressing thoughts (internal) and environments (external), and to then respond appropriately. Of course, it is easy to say, but takes a lifetime to master.
  • Realistic Optimism: I strongly believe in the need for leaders to lead with optimism and to demonstrate it consistently. But I also recognize the need for leaders to maintain a healthy view of reality, both for themselves and their people. Leaders accurately identify what we can control and change and then bring high levels of energy to what the team is doing, why, and how.
  • Broad Perspective: It’s important to make meaning of experiences, hard times, and even suffering. How does this event or experience nest within the broader picture of my/our purpose and improvement? What are we learning from this? Viktor Frankl writes on making meaning of suffering in his famed book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which is a sobering account of taking broad perspective amidst horrifying conditions.
  • Mental Agility & Adaptability: In-line with an accurate assessment of reality, we must focus on “what is” versus “what if” or “if only.” Resilient people and teams cope and respond with what they have, do not marinate in victimhood, and work through challenges to implement creative solutions. With time and practice, such adaptability becomes more efficient resulting in quicker reactions and solutions.
  • Meaningful Interpersonal Connections: The need for meaningful relationships is ingrained in our DNA. We cannot continuously persevere as an island. We need others through crucibles to help provide challenging accountability, loving support, and constructive perspective.

How to Develop Resilience in Your People and Team

If resilience must be trained, developed, and strengthened, it is important for leaders to consider how they are doing so in and through their people. Some practical ways can include the following.

  • Create and/or Leverage Challenging Training & Projects: Consider extremely challenging projects or training events to stress the deep personal and team perseverance muscle. For example, in military field training exercises, don’t prematurely end scenarios after immediate action when a team takes a casualty. Require them to endure through the scenario beyond immediate medical treatment to evacuation and then still completing the mission. Leverage physically and mentally tough challenges to foster shared hardship and teamwork in austere conditions.
  • Coach People to Learn Through & After Experiences: Support peoples’ growth mindset by coaching them through developmental experiences. The coaching provides important support through challenges and develops their continued commitment toward learning through all opportunities. Deliberately lead personal or collective reflection (after-action reviews) afterward.
  • Role-Modeling: Do not underestimate the power of your example in deliberately and consistently bringing optimism, high-energy, and realistic perspectives to your work and team. It’s an important first step.
  • Celebrate Growth: Positively reinforcing and celebrating growth through challenging experiences and even failure is an important requirement to motivate others to be willing to “enter the arena” and practice taking risks. It supports attitudes toward long-term learning and development, not just immediate performance and results. It encourages people taking broader perspectives.
  • Read & Talk About It: A great way to bring resilience and perseverance to the forefront of your peoples’ minds and developmental goals is to simply talk about it. Lead exploratory discussions on the topic and what it means to your people and how we need to get better at demonstrating it. Even reading more literature, like the books mentioned earlier in this post or other excellent case studies like the book, Endurance: Shacklton’s Incredible Voyage, can help us all better understand and think about resilience.
  • Use Organizational Change for Practice: Leading change within our teams and organizations is important for improved performance and results. But change also provides opportunities to demonstrate resilience within the team. View organizational change as deliberate opportunities to practice; more repetitions lead to improved personal and team resilience.

Remember, through all of life’s challenges, we must find the ways to go from “I can’t go on” to “I’ll go on.” More importantly, we as leaders must get our people to make that transition too.  Lead well, friends.

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  1. Hello, I am writing a short piece on grit & gratitude and would like to cite this piece. How do I find out the author’s full name (assume it’s “Josh”)? Thank you, mjc

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