“The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.“ Ernest Hemingway
It isn’t always about just getting your head down and doing it. One of the things I heard the most when I was growing up was ‘where does it hurt?’, with my father pointing to his head as if to say it’s all in the mind. And that is absolutely true – but not exactly in the way we think. It isn’t about pushing on through until the end of the race and finishing at any cost. I will never forget my first experience of running a marathon, and the different feelings I had whilst striving for a record time and ‘proving’ my physical and mental resilience. I went through excited anticipation as I thought of the time I may do, elated half-way joy as I calculated what the time may be, semi-conscious denial of the pain in my knees as I focused on the task in hand, and pushing through the pain of the last eight kilometres half running, half limping but not giving in!
It was a number of years before I got it deep down in my bones that my ‘resilience’ was not doing me any favours. Worse, it was keeping me small, exhausted and stuck. Resilience wears many coats, in keeping with the myths that build our identity as a ‘strong leader’ or a resilient individual: it’s for superheros (here admittedly it is more of a cape than a coat). But often, fighting hard and pushing through come what may is what keeps you in your position as Robin and not Batman, to continue with the superhero analogy. It’s a lot harder to step into the arena and be who you are. Other common coats are brute force and strength, miracles and superhuman exploits, or a quest for glory and recognition. The truth is that resilience is often quite the opposite.
Creative core resilience: an inside-out process
Core resilience is about learning and relearning. It’s humble, it’s about celebrating wounds differently, it’s listening to silent forces (either from within or from nature), it’s about deliberately changing the lens of how we look at things and believing in the transformation we are undertaking, both as individual leaders and as organisations.
This is like the butterfly and its imaginal cells as it emerges from the cocoon – a dark and sometimes maybe painful place – and the best part is that no one knows what the butterfly will look or feel like. We need to tune into this process and get curious about the messages. Luke Tyburski tells us that it is about being driven but also about being curious and consciously choosing the conversations we have with ourselves (listen to the podcast here)
The voices in our head and the conversations we have with ourselves are key to building inside-out core resilience based on gratitude and curiosity. Resilience, like so many leadership qualities, starts on the inside: from who you are at your core, your inner stories and allowing all parts of your ‘inner leadership team’ to express themselves. We spend so much of our time striving for perfection and wanting to control the process of being perfect and building resilience according to the external definitions of what a ‘resilient leader’ means and how he/she should show up for work. We know that ‘self-talk’ can improve performance and yet it is still perceived as a weakness to talk to yourself, or talk at all about not being perfect, or not getting it right every time. Yet vulnerability can supercharge your core resilience and you can build a different conversation with yourself and others. How many times have we shied away from developing a different conversation with ourselves because ‘we haven’t got time’ or let ourselves give in to the critical inner voice of ‘you could or should have done better’, whilst encouraging our teams to ‘let go’ and ‘use failure as a lever for learning’?
Interconnected systems: perfectly imperfect
Humans are not an exact science, and this is what makes us interesting. Leonard Cohen tells us “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”, which brings me to the Japanese art of Kintsugi. I remember being fascinated by this during my tour of Japan, as we learnt about Kintsugi and thought about what it could mean for the way we live and lead.
Kintsugi is not just about making repairs look good, it is also a philosophy. It is the belief that the breaks, cracks, and repairs become a valuable and esteemed part of the lived experience of an object and that, in fact, the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. It is a philosophy of wasting nothing, not even a crisis, and accepting change as a catalyst for continuous improvement and re-emergence. This is a different type of more compassionate resilience. Imagine how different our team meetings and business product cycles would be if we stopped to understand what opportunities came from the different learnings of iterative feedback loops rather than spending time looking at apportioning blame. We should take the time to step back and engage more curiously for deeper insights. This mindset can help us ‘mend’ workplace conflicts or resolve pain points, view them through a different lens and get curious about how to see them as strengths, thereby creating a new layer of wisdom and connecting things differently.
Interconnecting and connecting differently when things break or disconnect is a key part of navigating uncertain environments and we do this all the time in systems – we circle back to something clearer and bigger, connected differently with new perspectives and new opportunities. This offers us an opportunity to understand that breaks are there to offer us new perspectives, and a bit of respite from our never-ending quest for perfection and order. ‘Fail fast’ they say, but we should also celebrate the way failure looks and use it as an opportunity to discover new paths, new branches and new thinking.
Nature also teaches us a lot of these lessons, if indeed we are present enough to learn! All natural systems have to adapt, frequently, remain present, tune in to what is happening and reconnect things differently. We must learn what the system needs and adapt to support the system’s evolution, not try to figure out how to control it. The analogy with leading more networked organisations here is obvious: the beauty and impact of understanding the importance of connection, and the power of listening and flexibility to create a resourceful and resilient system that will thrive in transformation.
Scaling inclusive culture
Another lesson we learn from nature is that you cannot force things to happen in the way you want. You cannot plant your favourite seeds and just expect them to grow regardless – you need to create an environment in which the seeds can be nourished, supported and ultimately thrive. Through my experience of working with human systems in organisations, I quickly saw that no matter how much you prepare or design a system for change, or try to control and manage the outcome, things do not always go according to plan. Things unfold unpredictably and this is part of the process and mindset needed to build resilience at an individual and, more importantly, at a collective level.
With resilience comes empathy and an understanding of the different lenses needed to become creatively resilient. This is one of the fundamental building blocks of an inclusive culture, but this insight will be lost if the environment is not safe enough to share these learnings. How many times have we thought about speaking up and giving a different viewpoint but have ended up remaining silent? This is not necessarily for fear of being wrong, or of saying something silly, but also because if we put pressure on existing cracks, they may break. We know the cracks are there but think that we should push on through at any cost to ‘deliver’ on expectations and move on to the next task. Do you view another person’s mistakes and imperfections as negative or a weakness, or do you view that as part of what makes them great as well? It is worth spending a few minutes to ask yourself this question before checking in to your next meeting.
Another of the key principles in Kintsugi is expressing gratitude (kansha) – simple to understand but sometimes hard to put into practice. This simple practice on its own is incredibly powerful in creating different conversations and different relationships in the workplace and creating an environment in which people can thrive and strengthen their resilience.
If we want to create such an environment, we need to have different perspectives to actively understand the lived experiences of others and the patterns in our system, so that we as leaders can create a safe space in which our teams can express what they are thinking and feeling, particularly when faced with uncertain situations. Resilience needs to be fluid and constantly curious, bold yet humble, fast yet slow.
As we move into a post-Covid era of more hybrid working models, we must make our own commitments to apply kintsugi to mend what is broken in our approaches or get curious about what needs to be broken to be made more beautiful. If we are looking to craft collective organisational empathy, then we should be crafting collective resilience also. We must constantly question and connect things that wouldn’t necessarily come together otherwise and find creative strength in imperfection. After all, done is often better than perfect…
Thank you for reading.
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