Organizations are living, breathing organisms and need to be treated as such. Just because an organization was built on a certain set of values, doesn’t mean the organization lives those values as well. We hear leaders talk about how their organization has diversity in its DNA or was built on a foundation of ‘doing the right thing’…all of that unfortunately means very little, unless those values are deliberately nurtured. Just because a baby was brought into this world by principled parents with a clear moral compass, doesn’t mean the kid will grow up as such. Genetic makeup is only a piece of a much more intricate human development puzzle that among other things includes societal considerations, peer pressure, and the continued reinforcement of right from wrong. Organizations are no different.
An organization can have the best conceived DNA baked into its culture and its origins – until it gets tested. The test could manifest itself in a variety of different ways – market challenges, internal turmoil, financial pressures, a pandemic, or even the fundamental question about whether equality is the cornerstone of humanity. There’s a lot of material that has been and continues to be published about human resilience. I’ve written a book on this topic in addition to a multitude of articles, and based on my own personal journey feel very strongly about the fact that mental resilience is the key to inner peace, happiness, and a life well lived. In its simplest form, resilience is the seamless and relatively quick transition from an emotion of ‘what!’ to ‘so-what’.
While this article is not about human resilience but rather organizational resilience, the latter at the end of the day is squarely dependent on the humans, the humanity, and the resilience of the people who lead these organizations.
The intersection of leadership and organizational resilience
Let us first define a resilient organization. An organization can be called resilient when it stays true to its values and mission, irrespective of what hits it and when. While an organization’s vision statement is usually aspirational, in most cases it doesn’t really say much about the principles that will guide it there. The organization’s mission and values are usually more telling and a better indication of what is important and therefore the norm. Organizations that are able to continually assess their deviation from that norm, and as a result course-correct accordingly, are resilient.
Organizations as living organisms reflect the values of their leadership. The wrong kind of leadership can derail an organization built on the right principles. Leaders lacking in resilience will struggle to build, grow and lead resilient organizations. Emotional intelligence, empathy, honesty, etc. are all values that are critical to the notion of leadership resilience, but here are four key qualities that in my perspective separate resilient leaders from the rest of the pack.
1. Self-Awareness – A deep understanding of personal strengths and weakness and the ability to act appropriately based on that knowledge. A leader who is introspective enough and takes the time to evaluate his/her capabilities will naturally do the exact same thing with the organization, i.e. evaluate organizational strengths and weakness. The intention and end-goal of both efforts will be the same – neutralize the weaknesses, capitalize on the strengths, and course-correct quickly when deviating from core values.
2. Integrity – Leadership and especially executive leadership can be intoxicating. It never hurts our ego when we have the ability to want things done a certain way, knowing the organization/team will mobilize around that perspective. Having the ability to steer is a powerful feeling irrespective of where you sit as a leader in the organization. Just like everything else in life, having the steering wheel means controlling the direction and making appropriate decisions. A resilient leader will never cut corners and will always steer in a direction that is about doing the right thing.
3. Dispassion – A dispassionate leader isn’t one who lacks passion. A dispassionate leader is one who has the ability to take a step back, look at the big picture and course-correct appropriately. Such a leader doesn’t let ego get in the way of decision-making. Such leaders usually surround themselves with really smart people and let them loose…with the right guard-rails. Dispassionate leaders also understand that any organizational sacred cows are based on its mission and values – everything else is up for grabs.
4. Value-Driven – Resilient leaders usually stress on core values that they consider important for organizational health. These are nearly always values that are more altruistic and purpose-driven, than financial. Most importantly these leaders live those values and showcase them in how they think, operate and lead.
A resilient leader does not compromise on business results as the destination, but is very cognizant of the fact that the journey is equally if not more important. Leaders who have an attitude of ‘results at any cost’ usually lose the respect of their stakeholders and employees over time, and eventually fail. I would go one step further and say that resilient leaders automatically possess a higher emotional intelligence and are able to achieve even better business results because they get the job done the right way.
Organizational resilience is being tested like never before. Aside from the more fundamental question marks regarding financial stability and stakeholder commitments, other significant organizational challenges are taking a life of their own, including diversity and a bias-free culture, employee mental health, supporting remote work arrangements, and a dramatic change in market dynamics and customer expectations across multiple industries. Companies will need to be able to adjust their strategic priorities, course-correct on their execution plans, potentially disrupt themselves if they are in industries like health insurance and hospitality…and do all of this while treating their most valuable asset, their employees, with the highest level of respect and empathy.
In this day and age where leadership continues to erode at the most visible levels across the world, it is time for organizations to revisit their core values and to assess, hire, promote, and reward leaders that possess and showcase the aforementioned qualities – doing that is arguably the most viable path to building a high degree of organizational resilience.