'I wish it need not have happened in my time,' said Frodo. 'So do I,' said Gandalf, 'and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.'

Frodo, Gandalf, and their whole world grew from the mind of JRR Tolkein, whose imagination was shaped by his service in the First World War. Like his famous characters, Tolkein must have found himself wishing that things were otherwise as he and his generation were confronted with death and suffering on an epic scale. As our generation faces its own test in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic, we too wish things were different. The disease, the nation-wide lockdown, and the uncertainty about what might happen next can all play on our minds as we swing between optimism and pessimism. But like Frodo, Gandalf, and Tolkein, our task is clear: to decide what to do with the time that is given us. It’s a time to develop and deploy that inner strength that we call resilience.

Resilience has been overused, almost to the point of cliché, but if we can forget its status as a buzzword beloved of thought leaders we can recover its enduring power. One of the best ways to do that is to look to those times when resilience has had to be a lived daily reality, like the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes. In research conducted for Resilient New Zealand, a study of businesses’ experiences of and contributions to resilience in that aftermath, Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel summed it up like this: “Resilience is positive. It is not limited to bouncing back. It is about adaptability and co-creating a new environment in adversity. It is thriving on adversity. It’s about seeing a crisis as an opportunity to do things that you thought you couldn’t have done before.”

The Resilient New Zealand research, and my own experience in leadership roles, suggests several resilience principles that can help us all to be more resilient in the coming weeks and months. In other posts, I’ve suggested how leaders could apply these principles to create strategies for resilient leadership and Scott Pilkington has written about resilience for businesses and the importance of adaptability during the pandemic.

Resilience Principles

  1. Keep things in perspective: Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, co-authored a book called “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy,” after her husband’s sudden death. Still grieving for him, she was startled one day when her co-author, Professor Adam Grant, told her, “well you know, things could be a lot worse.” What could be worse than finding your husband facedown on the floor, dead from a cardiac arrest, she wondered? “[He] could have had that same cardiac arrhythmia driving your children." Odd as it seems, Grant's words helped her to find gratitude for what she still had. Along with gratitude, Sandberg advises using humour to help maintain perspective, because humour “goes against permanence, it makes you feel like … it’ll be OK.”
  2. Keep the main thing, the main thing: Be clear about what matters, and what doesn’t. When things are changing rapidly around you it’s easy to become disoriented, so it’s vital to have a compass to help you navigate new and unfamiliar terrain. If you haven’t previously identified what you’ve been put on this earth to achieve or the reasons why your business or organisation exists, now would be a good time to do so.
  3. Collaborate: None of us are perfect, and under stress our flaws can be magnified. A rapidly changing environment will also present us with new and unfamiliar information which we might not have the skills to interpret correctly by ourselves. The Resilient New Zealand research found that, “Many high-performing organisations have leadership teams, which are usually more effective in making complex decisions than a single leader.”
  4. Embrace the new normal and look to the future: The world as we know it has changed. Karen Nimmo, a psychologist, says that we must learn to “live alongside” our new reality. An adaptive mindset will do us more good in the long run than wishing things were otherwise. The Resilient New Zealand study states that, “Resilience is forward looking … it means having the capability to come back stronger and being better equipped for the future.”
  5. Put people first: Times of adversity clarify our priorities. As social and relational beings, we all know this, and in the words of the well-known whakataukī, “He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.”What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.
  6. Innovation and creativity: New circumstances call for new ways of thinking, leading, and acting. New challenges will arise, and new opportunities will present themselves. The Resilient New Zealand research says that, “a resilient organisation will encourage and reward its people for applying their knowledge in different ways to solve new and existing problems, and for using innovative and creative approaches to developing solutions.” 
  7. “You can’t over-communicate”: According to Resilient New Zealand, “People and businesses need advice, guidance and leadership from a trusted source. Regular and coordinated communications helps build trust and confidence in the recovery. Getting it wrong can conversely set the recovery back.”
  8. Generosity and grace: We all make mistakes at the best of times, and even more so when we’re in uncharted territory. Recognise that most people are doing their best and cut them some slack. Even someone who doesn’t look like they’re doing their best, like someone having a meltdown in a supermarket, may be driven by fear for an elderly relative or the looming spectre of redundancy. Be gracious to them.

Resilience can help us negotiate these challenging times, and even to thrive, but it’s not a panacea. Instead, resilience is about responding to risks and managing them when they can’t be removed. Sadly, the risks we’re all facing include the death of loved ones, and there may be great pain ahead for many of us. We can and should do as much as we can to guard against that possibility and to comfort those who suffer losses.

But when the crisis has passed, wouldn’t it be incredible if we found that the pandemic, with all the adversity and hardship it may bring, had made us more resilient—stronger, more caring, more connected, and better able to face the future. The virus may take much from us, but we do not need to let it take our resilience.

If you’d like to build your resilience during this time, feel free to get in touch to see how we can help you, whether that’s with leadership coaching and mentoring, advice on identifying your priorities and refining them in this changing environment, or to develop and deploy any of the other resilience principles above.

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