Maya Angelou once said, “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” Wise words, especially today where good news, any good news, seems elusive. A coach colleague of mine put it to me this way in a recent video chat. “We are all pounded!” he exclaimed. We are pounded by this health crisis, pounded by civil unrest and racism, and pounded by a void of national leadership or intelligible strategy. Ouch! That’s a lot of flagellation all at once.
So much so that folks in other countries are worried about us, too. One former work colleague in Melbourne, Australia messaged me on Facebook about the rise of United States Covid-19 hot spots and wrote, “Are you Americans alright? The news about you seems rather grim.” Another friend in the UAE sent me a WhatsApp video of rioting in one US city. “Did you see this?” he wrote. “Um, yup,” I replied, vaguely annoyed that he wouldn’t think I was already overexposed to the repetitive blow-by-blow news cycle in my own country.
It’s not surprising, then, that webinars, articles, and self-help literature on the topic of Resilience are especially du jour right about now. A member of my local coaches’ group, Dr. Kevin Nourse, is focusing his successful coaching practice on supporting California healthcare administrators and clinicians with Resilience tools. According to Nourse, “The ongoing nature of the pandemic, impacting every domain our lives, presents an unprecedented challenge to our capacity to adapt to a new normal. By building our resilience, we establish a reserve of internal resources—comparable to a savings account—that we can draw upon when faced with future adversity and setbacks.”
A focus on Resilience has taken hold in New Zealand as well. “The world needs resilient people, not broken people,” according to Auckland-based Dr. Sven Hanson in Inside-Out, a book he authored on behalf of the Resilience Institute, which he co-founded. It turns out that Resilience represents a growing body of scientific research, and here’s the good news—we are all fully equipped to practice Resilience. In fact, there is no better classroom than the one in which all of us are learning today—socially distanced, masked, and eager to shape a hopeful future.
What is Resilience?
This depends on who you talk to. German religious leader Dieter Uchtdorf describes Resilience in this way: “It’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself, that determines how your life’s story will develop.” Australian designer, Jessica Benhar, takes a different perspective, writing “Resilience is not about bouncing back like a rubber band but rather feeling the things you need to feel so you can move forward, stronger than before.”
According to the Resilience Institute’s Dr. Hanson, we can look at Resilience as an integrated step-by-step habit-forming practice, one that consists of four intentional efforts: Bounce, Courage, Creativity, and Connection. Bounce is kind of like our Resilience playbook, setting up a mindset of achievement, the cultivation of supporting networks, and a bias for action. Courage plays off of Bounce and asks us to commit to specific tasks and activities to embrace an aspirational future. Creativity is our insistence to stretch our talents and to leverage our innate curiosity and desire to learn. Connection brings the first three together, giving us a respectful and open engagement with ourselves (our body, emotion, thoughts, and purpose) and with others.
The Nature of Bounce
It is Hanson’s first step, Bounce, that most intrigues me. According to the American Psychological Association, “As much as Resilience involves ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.” That sounds good to me, and it conjures up one of my favorite childhood toys, the super ball. Do you remember super balls? They were neon-bright and often transparent, they bounced really high, and they were unpredictable. You never knew where they were off to once they hit the ground, and it sure was fun chasing super balls. Maybe the Bounce of Resilience is something like that.
Higher Education Heroic Bouncers
Today, millions in this country are job-insecure and at risk of contracting COVID-19. Thousands of these people work for colleges and universities, and some of those are my clients. I admire them; they are ramping up for perhaps the most unpredictable fall semester in history. For those who oversee campus staffs, they are setting a leadership tone without the advantage of live engagement. Zoom fatigue is real. Few of them have even been in the same geographic space with their teams since March. Back then, with little or no notice, they vacated their offices and centers, drove away from their campuses, and went about the uncharted business of salvaging their spring semesters. This involved freezing staff searches, cancelling calendared programs, trimming budgets, and employing technology to teach, train, connect, and deliver baseline services to support their students. I am in awe of these “higher education pandemic warriors” as I call them. Talk about Bounce! I urge them to take a well-deserved pause to bask, even if just for a few moments, in what they have accomplished in the midst of so much uncertainty and fear.
Dark Clouds Ahead
But when the basking is done, the real work of Bounce begins, because as upbeat as I always like to be, there will be no full return to the way things were when we clinked our champagne flutes to the new year on January 1 with such high hopes for 2020 and the decade ahead. Right at this moment, college and university leaders are feverishly tracking admission and melt projections; developing sustainable online, hybrid, and live student experiences; and determining how best to manage, support, and inform their staffs and faculty. The ball bounces, and your guess is as good as mine as to where it goes next.
The Coaching Principles Behind Bounce
Executive coaches often gravitate to trusted themes with their clients. One is to help them see the opportunity that often rides alongside adversity. Savvy higher education leaders are doing this as I write. The other is the theme of habit formation. Positive habits tend to change behavior for the better, and taking some routine actions to strengthen Resilience Bounce can yield results that stick.
Skills for Resilience Bounce
So, what are these opportunities to be seized and habits to be formed? What can you as a higher education leader do, day-to-day, to grab onto this unparalleled opportunity with both hands and fine tune your Bounce effect in service to you and to those you lead and work alongside?
Skill 1: Practice Learned Optimism
We are comfort seeking humans, always trying to remove any experience of adversity. But there is no avoiding it. All kinds of adversity surround us. As a client asked me, “Where will the roulette wheel of anxiety land today?” Positive Psychology guru, Martin Seligman describes mindset of optimism where we delineate between a pleasant life, engaged life, and a meaningful life. The pleasant life is kind of the American dream life, with all the trappings of consumer wellbeing. The engaged life puts your talents to their ultimate use in fully connecting your experience to the experience of others. The meaningful life takes your talents to the next level, using them to belong to and serve something larger than yourself.
Now is a good time to master your engaged life habit, ensuring that your professional and personal relationships play to your optimistic future vision in a way that is authentically “you” and is appreciated by those you engage.
Skill 2: Practice Authentic Relationships
Americans are known for their rampant individualism. Although Resilience is about an abundance of self-care, healthy habits will elude us if we remain firmly at the center of our own universe.
Although campus politics and posturing will still find their way into your Zoom room, use this time of tremendous uncertainty to ensure that you are contributing to, and being supported by collegial relationships that allow you to be agenda-free, vulnerable, and fully seen by others.
Skill 3: Practice Thriving in the Second Beat
It is interesting that stories, including our own, tend to happen in three movements, or beats. Mythologist Joseph Campbell popularized the Hero’s Journey in 1949, arguing that every story follows a common narrative. Stories always have a Departure where a challenge surfaces and the protagonists must rise to the occasion. Next comes an Initiation (the second beat) where they face trials and question if it is all worth it. Finally, our resilient protagonists Return from our journey—tested, wise, and better for having survived it. Dr. William Bridges in his bestselling book, Managing Transitions, builds on the narrative metaphor to help leaders navigate through a quickly changing landscape. He too, suggests three beats, or phases as he calls them. Phase 1 is the ending, the loss, the letting go. Phase 2 (the second beat) is the neutral or the “not knowing” zone, and Phase 3 is the new beginning. For both Campbell and Bridges, life’s richness comes right in the middle, in the initiation, the not knowing zone, the second beat of the narrative.
You are solidly leading in Beat 2 on your campus, and your ability to tap your innate creativity like never before in a manner that is adaptable, open, and ultimately forgiving when all does not flow according to plan will grow and sustain a habit that will serve you, time and time again.
Skill 4: Practice Stoicism
“You are so stoic!” Has anyone ever said that to you? It is a huge compliment, pointing to your ability to overcome hardships with low drama. Author and blogger, Ryan Holiday, is fixated on Stoicism, dedicating an entire book, The Daily Stoic, to the ancient philosophy of wisdom that pushes through adversity to land on the “Good Life.”
Your “steady as you go” pandemic heroism may not win you that staff recognition award, but be assured, your get-it-done spirit and level approach to addressing today’s higher education challenges will position you as the kind of leader your institution so desperately needs.
We just don’t know where the ball will bounce next, but you have an opportunity to grow, develop, and sustain habits of Resilience that will empower you and support those people you know, on campus and off.