The right stuff

Great leaders are resilient


Camille Khodadad

Camille Khodadad is a principal in the labor and employment and litigation and dispute resolution practice groups at Much Shelist. She is a frequent speaker on current trends in employment law and issues pertaining to women in the workplace.

February 2020

Two people experience the same devastating event. One person thrives because of it. The other person spirals out of control. What is the key personality trait leading to these two diametrically opposed outcomes?

Oftentimes, the answer is resilience.

While it is frequently treated as a synonym for grit, resilience is a unique and independent quality. In contrast to grit — which I defined in my July 2017 column as "perseverance and passion for long-term goals" — resilience is that ineffable ability to get back up and move forward after being knocked down in pursuit of one's goals.

We all know people who are resilient. They are our colleagues, friends, neighbors and family members who have suffered major setbacks in life, whether it be an illness, financial hardship or loss of relationships. But no matter how emotionally, physically or financially debilitating these obstacles may have been, these resilient people somehow managed to learn from their experiences and come back even stronger.

At a recent women’s leadership conference, one speaker identified resilience as a key attribute of successful female leaders. Being able to fail, rise up, learn from that failure and come back stronger often is determinative of which women advance professionally.

How do we develop resilience? Typically, the process begins when we are young. By dealing with small obstacles, we learn how to handle and overcome them.

Interestingly, studies suggest that women may be more resilient than men. The theory is that because women tend to be excluded from certain privileges due to gender, they have more opportunities over a lifetime to develop the ability to overcome barriers.

Regardless of where each of us falls on the spectrum, there are ways in which we all can become more resilient.

See the end in the beginning: Throughout my life, whenever I was going through something difficult, my parents told me to "see the end in the beginning." Their words were critical in keeping me focused on my long-term goals, rather than getting thrown off course by the daily happenings of life. I learned that even when experiencing setbacks, keeping a keen sense of what motivates me allows me to remain focused on moving toward my goals.

Take control: One of the worst feelings is believing that we do not have control over a situation. One of my colleagues teaches her children to “be a thermostat, not a thermometer.” In other words, we can control our own “temperature.”

Rather than allowing the events of our life to control our reactions, we have the ability to control how we react to each situation. By viewing each obstacle as a life lesson and opportunity for learning and growth, we allow ourselves to move forward and have a say in the outcome.

Learn to be fine with failure: In our culture, the word failure has many negative connotations. Nobody wants to fail. However, when we try something new, failure is inevitable, if not necessary. Getting comfortable with failing means being open to learning something new. Feeling comfortable at all times leads to stagnancy.

Develop tools for managing stress: Life is filled with stressors. To avoid burnout and maintain resilience, we all need tools for staying strong — whether discussions with trusted advisers, spiritual practices, exercise or mediation. Whatever your preference, develop some type of daily practice for taking care of yourself.

Remind yourself of past successes: When I look back at the setbacks in my life, the space of time and distance allows me to see the positive qualities I developed as a result of those setbacks. When you need help bouncing back after a setback, think of past experiences when you were able to persevere. Or if you prefer, look at the experience of when someone you admire was able to overcome adversity and consider how they recovered.

Nobody enjoys falling down or failing in life. But understanding how to rise up, learn from mistakes and charge forward with determination and focus is critical to our growth and is the stuff of great leaders.