Resilience and Leadership

[This is part of an occasional series about the characteristics of intercultural leaders.]

ResilienceIn times of trial and uncertainty we turn to our leaders for calm. When leaders aren’t calm, how can the rest of us be?

I once worked in an organization facing severe financial strain. Everybody knew we were under pressure, but we were okay, because every time news came, good or bad, our leader would confidently say “The future is bright!” He had the technical skills to guide the organization through the challenges, so we knew his words weren’t hollow. It just meant so much to us that our leader was solid in his belief that we would all be okay. Morale remained high, despite our challenges.

At one point, though, things turned. I suppose he’d had one too many rough meetings with his leaders, who were getting panicky, and he took on this mindset. The rest of the organization began to sink along with him.

My point is not that leaders should sugar-coat harsh realities. My point is twofold: that reality can be interpreted in many ways, and that specifically the resilience of leaders matters a lot for organizations.

What’s the intercultural connection here? Leading in unfamiliar cultural waters means being confronted every day with the reality of “normal” being anything but — where expectations are thwarted, and “strange” and “irrational” behaviors rule the roost. In short, leading in an unfamiliar cultural environment sets the perfect stage for “freaking out.” Our primordial “lizard brain” takes over, shutting down our higher cognitive functions. We can’t lead effectively in this state.

This means intercultural leaders need to be able to bounce back — again and again and again. They need to be ready for the next “lizard brain” reaction, and to have strategies in place for recognizing these reactions, for moving past them, and for using them as learning for whatever comes next. Despite cultural breakdowns all around — miscommunication, ruffled feathers, unmet expectations, and plain old prejudice — the resilient intercultural leader remains above it all. She expects strong emotions, so she’s not prone to overreacting. Instead of falling back on her heels, she leads from the balls of her feet: solid, stable, grounded, balanced. Empathy helps too: able to see things from many perspectives, she doesn’t take any one view too seriously — including her own. She trusts her instincts, but she’s not wedded to any single idea or way of doing things.

From the outside it might look easy, but it’s anything but. Like any human, she has internal reactions, including those based on her own prejudices. Those reactions are  charged. What she’s mastered, though, is the art of recognizing her reactions, getting a handle on them, and moving forward toward solutions. She’s got passion and fire, but knows how to have them work for her instead of against her. Her resilience provides an anchor for everyone around her.

Resilience comes more naturally to some than to others. It’s an absolutely essential quality of the intercultural leader. Thankfully it can be learned and practiced, like any skill.

If you’re an I-House resident, consider applying for the Intercultural Leadership Initiative, or email me about joining my mentoring program this spring. I you’re not an I-House resident, contact the Center for Intercultural Leadership about designing a custom program for your organization.

About Jason D. Patent

Jason is the inaugural director of the Center for Intercultural Leadership at International House Berkeley. His career spans the education, business, and non-profit sectors. He has spent over ten years living and working in China and is passionate about helping China and the U.S. to understand each other better. Jason holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley.
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