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True grit: the qualities of a successful leader

2018 has been a trying year across many industries. As budgets have reigned in, performance expectations are stepped up, companies are restructured and outsourcing becomes the norm, it has been a make or break year for many businesses and individuals.

Enter one of today’s greatest buzzwords: resilience. How people handle adversity is a key differentiator between failure and success, and the mounting challenges across our corporate sector have put the grit of many professionals in the spotlight.

Harvard Business School Professor, Rosabeth Moss Canter says her research on effective leaders and great companies highlights resilience as a common attribute. “The difference between winners and losers is how they handle losing,” she writes in a Harvard Business School article, Surprises are the new normal; resilience is the new skill. “No one can completely avoid troubles and potential pitfalls are everywhere, so the real skill is the resilience to climb out of the hole and bounce back.”

Running serves as a good metaphor for resilience. In one high-intensity session with my running group, the coach told us to do ten laps around the oval. We paced ourselves accordingly so that at the end, there was nothing left in the tank. When the coach told us to do one more, we all managed to pull it off. We were all more resilient than we realised.

As my running group showed, resilience is about being flexible when new challenges are thrown at us. It also comes down to a sense of accountability and shared responsibility. In this case, if any of us tapped out of the last lap, it would have shaken the team morale. Creativity and initiative are also valuable. Professor Moss Canter gives the example of a German machinery company threatened by slowing demand for machinery during Europe’s recession. Instead of waiting for economic recovery, it responded proactively, mobilising its workforce to find new service possibilities.

I recently asked Adshel CEO, Mike Tyquin for his thoughts on resilience, and he emphasised the need to step back and assess a situation dispassionately. “By doing that, you can define and come to terms with what’s required,” he said. “You must ultimately have a plan and get everyone to buy in. It’s critical not to catastrophise.”

Part of being a resilient leader is the ability to make tough decisions, especially common in today’s climate. When this means making decisions that will affect others adversely, such as redundancies, Tyquin’s approach starts with communication. “As a leader, if you have been communicating properly with your team, the decision shouldn’t come as a shock,” he said. “Being respectful of the impact on others is fundamental.”

Resilience seems to come naturally for some. In another running session, my group had worked hard for an hour and were then told to run up a seemingly endless set of stairs. Not everyone made it, including me. Those who did, were the ones who displayed a steely determination from the outset. You could see it in their eyes, the way they managed their bodies through the tiredness and their positive mental state. They even encouraged others as they passed.

Tyquin looks for this quality when interviewing candidates, saying that the way people deal with adversity says a lot about their character. If steely determination doesn’t always come naturally to you, it’s something you can learn. In the same way that we train ourselves for a marathon, we can develop strategies that get us through tough times in our personal and working life. A strong leader will encourage the team to do the same.