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|Written by Dr. Jim Chambers|
Personal Resilience and Leadership
Research on leadership development often focuses on the personal attributes and characteristics of leaders. The objective is to provide the reader with an understanding of leadership trait theory - the belief that the best leaders possess specific attributes and traits.
Some of the most prominent traits receiving research attention from 1920 to date have been the activity and energy level of leaders, the degree of competence in performing tasks, the presence of interpersonal skills, and the impact of charisma (Bass, 1990; Wren, 1994). Another area that has received a great deal of attention is the relationship between authoritarianism and power orientation and its influence on the role of the leader and followers (Bass, 1990). Each new body of research provides us with additional insights into the personal attributes and characteristics of successful leaders and how we might all improve the way we work together.
Research into Personal Resilience
A relatively new focus of leadership research not treated in detail by our texts or online readings involves the personal resilience necessary to handle constant chaos and change. Because the impact of rapid change on leaders and their organizations is a somewhat recent phenomenon, empirical research regarding the role of personal resilience and its long-term impact on successful leaders has been limited.
One of the early pioneers in the direct investigation of personal resilience was Daryl R. Conner, President and CEO of Organizational Development Resources, a research and consultancy group. In his initial research on organizational change theory and its connection to personal resilience, Conner (1992) and his collogues were able to identify some very basic patterns about how people respond during organizational transitions. Although the initial field research and data were limited, they were able to validate some general principles for successfully managing change initiatives within specific organizational settings.
These initial findings on how leaders and organizations responded to change eventually lead them to investigate more closely the direct relationship between rapid change and human adaptability. Since most of our doctoral students at UOP are engaged in leadership and management positions, this emerging research could be of particular interest to those who are responsible for change initiatives.
Toward an Understanding of Resilience and Leadership
Conner eventually released his landmark work, Leading at the Edge of Chaos in which he outlines a more detailed theory human adaptability and its impact on organizational change and leadership (1998). Central to his findings was a critical new model for identifying and understanding the specific characteristics of resilient behavior and its overall influence on individual leaders.
As you balance conflicting demands and priorities, move through days that are full to overflowing, make decisions that affect the lives of countless others, respond to challenges, and shape new organizational directions, your personal adaptation capacity is taxed to the limit. In order to hold the enterprise on the brink of chaos, your own capacity to thrive in the midst of disruption cannot be compromised. Each individual has a personal speed of change. Your speed of change is the rate at which you can move through the adaptation process with a minimum of dysfunctional behavior - the pace at which you can bounce back from the confusion caused by uncertainty and grasp the opportunities that the new environment presents. The single most important factor for enhancing this speed of change is resilience. (1998, p. 189)
Conner goes on to define resilient leaders as those who can consistently "operate at a high speed of change" and argues that because of this unique internal capability, they "have an advantage over their less resilient counterparts" (1998, p. 189). He also found that this internal capacity also enabled them to escape the normal intellectual, physical, and emotional side affects commonly associated with long periods of stress (1998, p. 189).
The research seems to indicate that personal resilience allows some leaders to perform difficult tasks such as planning, delegation, and decision making while operating in the midst of unfamiliar and uncertain situations. The very fact that they are able to do this over a sustained period of time sets them apart from those who are more likely to become confused, disoriented, and even emotionally drained. Perhaps one of the most important results from Connor's research has been the direct connection between the emotional state of the individual leader and their ability to continually perform at a high level of competency while under tremendous personal stress (1998).
Connor's (1998) assertion that leaders at all levels possess qualities and characteristics that support their personal resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity is commonly accepted by others in the field. According to Bernard (1995), resilience describes a set of qualities that foster a process of successful adaptation and transformation despite risk and adversity. Butler (1997) argues that a leader's resilience is an interactive and systematic phenomenon and the product of a complex relationship of inner strengths and outer help that enable them to adapt well throughout a lifetime. McDargh (2004) contends that resiliency in leadership is "the capacity to cultivate strengths to positively meet the challenges of living; the ability to bounce back from adversity while maintaining personal and corporate integrity" (2004, p. 4).
The human adaptability model advanced by Conner (1998) offers five personal characteristics that help identify and define the resilient leader's behavior. The model identifies the major components of resilient behavior as:
It is also important to note that the five elements of resilience presented in the model are not necessarily needed or manifested by every leader in every situation. Conner readily acknowledges that:
One situation may call for a decisive action with a great deal of attention to the balance of perceived anger and opportunity; another may call for a high degree of adherence to structure; yet another may require a heavy use of resources from colleagues. Because each situation calls on a different configuration of resilience characteristics, it is impossible to say that there is a single "trait" called resilience. Rather, we have come to view resilience as the ability to draw effectively on whichever characteristic, or combination of characteristics, is call for in a particular situation (1998, p. 192-193).
The Need for More Research and Application
The role of personal resilience and its impact on the growing field of organizational leadership is just one example of how important the study of leadership trait theory is to our overall understanding of how and why some leaders succeed where others do not. The fact that some leaders possess specific measurable and verifiable attributes such as those associated with personal resilience gives us an opportunity to continually expand our knowledge of what is innate and what can be learned.
Although a considerable amount of time and attention has already been given to research into the personal attributes and characteristics of leaders, a great deal of empirical data is still needed if we hope to develop workable models with practical application to the modern workplace. As Pettigrew (2001) has so aptly observed,
In times of uncertainty, it is comforting to believe that individuals in leadership positions can make a difference. There is, of course, a large gap between belief and assertions about the potency of leaders in changing circumstances and the need empirically to demonstrate through careful research the what, why, and how of translating executive intentions into realized change (2001, p. 649).
At the Institute for Organizational Leadership, we have found that research and models like those offered by Conner and others to be invaluable in assessing the change readiness and personal characteristics of high profile corporate clients. These individuals are generally responsible for leading national or global organizations and are expected to maintain a high level of leadership competency even in the midst of extreme conflict or organizational transition. The ability to identify and understand their own personal resilience has often played a major role in our work of preparing them to provide quality leadership during very challenging circumstances.
As more and better research on leadership trait theory and human adaptability becomes available, practitioners in a variety of fields will be able to apply this knowledge directly to the workplace where it has the potential of improving our ever-changing world of work. I would challenge each of you to give at least some consideration to the role of personal resilience as you prepare your personal leadership plan at the end of this course.
Bass, B. M. (1990). Handbook of leadership: Theory, research, & managerial applications (3d ed.). New York: The Free Press.
Benard, B. (1995) Fostering resiliency in children. Urbana, IL: Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. ED 386 327.
Butler, K. (1997) The anatomy of resiliency. Family Networker, 15. 22-33.
Conner, D. R. (1992). Managing at the speed of change. New York: Villard Books.
Conner, D. R. (1998). Leading at the edge of chaos. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
McDargh, E. (2004). Resilient leaders. Executive Excellence, 21 (7), pp. 2-4.
Pettigrew, A. M. (1987). Context and action in the transformation of the firm. Journal of Management Studies, 24 (6), 649 - 670.
Wren, D. A. (1994). The evolution of management thought (4th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
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