The Road to Resilience: Failure, Recovery, and Recovery Again

December, 2019
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It would be an understatement to suggest that leaders face significant challenges in today’s complex world. Consider the tasks of balancing a strategic focus on mission and vision, ensuring organizational growth, and staying abreast of the latest industry trends. Additionally, leaders must navigate change, make sound decisions, and nurture organizational environments marked by engagement and innovation.


And sometimes we fail.


‘Failure’, argues Patrick Malone, director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University, Washington, has a unique status in society and the human psyche. From an early age, Patrick contends, we are reminded of the importance of succeeding and not failing. We dreaded the feared F on a paper when we were in school. We are conditioned not to accept failure but to succeed at all costs. In the workplace, failure is often accompanied by an admonishment not to let it happen again, followed by a written report ensuring corrective action. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson famously asks leaders to consider how many failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy compared to failures that are simply treated as blameworthy. Unfortunately, we excel in the latter. Indeed, our obsession with failure is significant.


When we err as leaders—and we do—we face all the organisational and cultural implications of failure. This is precisely when we must turn to our own resilience.


Resilience is a crucial trait among leaders. It allows us to maintain a balanced perspective even when the complex world around us swirls mercilessly. Resilience allows for better decision making, sustained personal growth, and the ability to bounce back with fierce resolve.


Snyder and Lopez, in their 2002 Handbook of Positive Psychology, suggest that resilience is one of four capacities that make up one’s psychological capital. In addition to hope, optimism, and self-efficacy, resilience rounds out the productive capacities of human beings that allow them to thrive and grow. When leaders are resilient, they become more adaptable and are able to assess situations from unique perspectives. This opens up avenues to decisions that might have been hidden before. Resilient leaders also exhibit extraordinary confidence. Not only are they willing to admit mistakes and grow, they are self-assured that they will ultimately be successful.


The good news is we all have an inherent resilience. The bad news is that some struggle to tap into resilience when conditions warrant. Consider asking yourself these questions:


Do I worry about asking others for help when I need it?

Do I get needlessly side tracked when I encounter difficulty in an assignment?

Do I struggle with change and uncertainty?

Do I get down on myself?

Do I learn from my mistakes, or do I allow them to bog me down?

Do I get stressed easily?


If the answer to any of the above is yes, you may have just uncovered a pathway to building more resilience. But how does one get there. The secrets are quite simple.


  • Be Authentic: How many times have we seen this in recent leadership literature? Authenticity is the foundation for not only understanding self but also being able to connect readily with others. Yet still, finding our authentic self can, at times, be challenging. It requires us to expose some of our most vulnerable weaknesses.


  • Opt for a Learning Mind: Unfortunately, when we fail, we sometimes slip into neurological survival mode. This is perfectly natural but not terribly productive. By adopting a learning mindset, resilient leaders are able to grow from failure by seeking out new information and pathways forward.


  • Don’t Go at It Alone. Resilient leaders know better than others that it is not possible to go solo. Today’s world has far too much complexity and speed of change to allow such an endeavor. Build strong social and professional networks and take comfort in seeking advice.

Resiliency is not for the faint of heart. It requires resolve, courage, and risk-taking—and far from the historically negative vibe to which it has been linked.


About the Author: Patrick Malone: is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. His research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy.


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When I misbehaved as a lad, my mother was the one who almost always reprimanded me. After lecturing me on the rights and wrongs, she’d ask, “Did you do that on purpose, son?” then hand out the punishment. My actions were almost always spontaneous episodes of teenage stupidity, not premeditated acts of dissent. While I was definitely a rebellious teenager, my mother’s inquisition always made me think about my actions, and to this day, “Are you doing that on purpose?” is a question I ask myself regularly about my effect on others.

Purpose and People Are the New Frontier

For most businesses, the most valuable asset they manage is their people, so employee engagement and satisfaction are strategic imperatives that every leadership team should understand. People who turn up to work each day and aren’t actively using their talents to pursue or connect to their purpose don’t operate at their full potential. People who find their reason for being, who uncover their purpose and connect with it passionately, become more engaged and significantly more effective at work and in life because of a clear sense of fulfillment. Helping your employees discover and define their purpose represents a significant opportunity to improve “people” engagement and, therefore, overall business performance.

Companies that find their purposes are not different when they define or rediscover their reason for being. Working closely with executive teams at large corporations to reposition and refresh their businesses’ brands, we encounter many who ask for our guidance to explore and define their purpose. This is not just vision and mission work, it is deep strategic work that can affect every facet of a business.

How Is Purpose Different From Vision?

There has been a lot written around purpose, the roles we play in the world, the reasons we exist, and the need for our lives to have meaning. Finding purpose is the central question we seek to answer at a key point in our lives. Like people trying to find their way, companies seeking to reinvigorate their business and find a relevant and compelling position must step back and answer the central question of why they exist. Oftentimes executive teams try to answer this question by laying out a vision statement around how they see the future.

A vision statement, for many, is aspirational; it’s a description of what the company wants to achieve and is not intended to be literal. Whereas, a purpose statement clearly articulates the reason a company exists in the world, the role it plays, offering a clear and accurate description of the core business.

Companies With a Greater Purpose

It feels like just yesterday when purpose-driven companies like Newman’s Own and Patagonia were few and far between. Today, they are sprouting up in almost every business category, and challenging the current ways of doing business.

Chobani’s purpose is to “make universal wellness happen sooner . . . totally and deeply committed to playing an active role in transforming our food system for the betterment of our planet, our people, and our communities.” And for twelve years this purpose has been expressed and executed strategically across every facet of their business. “The Chobani Way” is the brand’s commitment to the highest standards for lawful, honest, and ethical conduct in all business dealings. This commitment is reflected in everything that it does, from its purpose-driven business decisions, to philanthropic efforts, and the way that employees and partners are treated. Consistent with Chobani’s commitment to provide better food for more people, the brand follows the highest standards for lawful, honest, and ethical conduct in all business dealings, ensuring its products are produced and manufactured with ingredients and materials sourced from suppliers that are socially and ethically responsible.

Paving a Path on Purpose

The Chobani brand is also helping small companies challenge the food industry, improve broken systems, and make an impact through their Chobani Food Incubator. Hamdi Ulukaya launched the incubator in 2016 with the intention of helping companies take on broken food systems to carry out their goal of bringing better food to more people. In addition to investment, the incubator gives startups access to a network of experts to scale up operations and achieve significant growth.

Chobani’s reason for being (their purpose) is expressed in every functional area of their business, and the difference shows in every metric of business performance.

The Benefits and Effects of Leading on Purpose

The leaders we work with are seeking to understand how their brands play a more meaningful role in the world and how to improve their overall business performance. If you sit on the C-suite of any major corporation, don’t run past the question of purpose as a serious opportunity to affect your business and the people you serve.

When your company has a clear purpose, you plan with that connected purpose, mapping your strategy clearly to your reason for being as a business and the role you play in the world. When objectives have a purpose and are clearly communicated, everyone on the team is on the same page and understands what to do and why they are doing it. If you define your purpose, plan with it in mind, and measure your actions and performance against it, you increase engagement, inspire and fuel performance and do your most rewarding and satisfying work. If in doubt, always remember what my mum said: “Are you doing that on purpose?”