Resilient leaders believe in a future they help shape

16th March 2023

When trauma strikes, people fall on a continuum between despairing helplessness and resilient energy. Times are tough in the country now. The news seems relentlessly depressing. Intense anger and impotence grow because so many of the problems currently closing businesses and killing jobs could have been avoided. The government seems to be unable or unwilling to get anything constructive done. In these times, what can those of us responsible for businesses learn from resilient people?

Resilience begins in the mind. Renowned psychologist Martin Seligman explains that resilient people have an optimistic explanatory style. They interpret setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable (“It’s going away quickly; it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it”). Leaders have to discipline their own thoughts to avoid sinking into a doom loop focused on all that is wrong.

Our disillusion with people, the country and the future is a normal response and should be acknowledged. But once that’s done, it does not help to dwell on the bad stuff.

If resilience begins in the mind, it continues in our conversations with others. We cope better and help our staff cope better if we steer the conversation away from circles of despair. This should not be irritatingly naive optimism, just a realistic acceptance that things are indeed
tough, but that we will get through. And keep a few good news stories up your sleeve. The reality that influences us is created by what we pay attention to.

Thirdly, resilience grows from taking constructive actions. We should be angry and we should express it, but in a way that provides energy for action, rather than draining us. What struck me while listening to a radio talk show recently is that anger seems to be slipping into
despondency in some circles. That’s worse. “There is nothing we can do,” seemed to be the refrain.

But there is always something we can do. And there are two reasons to do something specific and practical to make the situation better – even if just symbolically.

The first reason is that doing something constructive helps our own psychological survival. A major contributor to negative stress is a sense of being helpless, of not being able to take control of what happens in our lives. Taking the first step to address a problem increases our sense of personal agency and adds to our resilience. And if we can act alongside others, that contributes another key element of coping – like-minded company.

The other reason for doing something constructive is of course to make a difference. Private citizens or companies are fixing potholes, cleaning up streets and maintaining public gardens, creating jobs, refusing to allow representatives and officials get away with poor service.

Imagine if all of us wrote a message or camped at the office of someone in authority to demand they do better. We could begin to influence the national conversation to support the assumption that the goal of public service is a healthy and productive public, not a license to loot.

In doing this we should express our message in a way that models what we want to see – direct honesty with respect, understanding, and the highest ethical standards of responsibility.

Finally, resilience comes from having a purpose in life and belonging to something bigger than ourselves. As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Don’t let disillusion rob you of your life mission or the source of your faith in the future. When things get tough, that is precisely when this faith proves its value. The future will be created by those who have the faith and the courage to take action.

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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