Guest Post: Become a More Resilient Leader

I hope you’ll enjoy this post from my friend Amy Jackson (you can learn more about her and her work at the end of this post). Amy is an editor, a writer, and a leader of leaders. If you’re a woman in church leadership, you’ll want to check out WomenLeaders.com, one of the websites she manages.

 

My daughter’s latest obsession is the Trolls movie soundtrack. We can’t take any car ride without singing along to the songs. Overall, the songs are encouraging and fun, and many are remakes of old favorites. I’ll admit, there are worse soundtracks to be obsessed with.

One of my daughter’s favorite songs, sung by the main character, Poppy, is called “Get Back Up Again.” The chorus is especially optimistic and encouraging: “I’m not giving up today / There’s nothing getting in my way / And if you knock knock me over / I will get back up again.” I’m thankful my daughter is listening to lyrics like these because she’s already showing a lot of leadership tendencies, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a leader, it’s that leaders get knocked down again and again.

It’s inevitable. A risk you take doesn’t work out, a path you choose doesn’t pan out, or your team doesn’t work together quite like you’d hoped. These little setbacks are exactly what the song is speaking to. But here’s the truth—sometimes we face more than just little setbacks. Sometimes we face things that are simply devastating. As part of my work as editor of WomenLeaders.com, I often hear stories of the things that knock down women leaders in particular, and many are heartbreaking tales of being overlooked, mistreated, or even abused.

I’ve experienced firsthand some of these devastating blows in ministry. I had a job end abruptly due to budget restraints without having any clue about what I should do next. I had an important ministry relationship end in flames when it turned abusive. And I experienced unbelievable gender discrimination in a ministry job that I ended up quitting.

When we experience blows like these, we’re often left wondering: Did I misunderstand my calling? Why would God lead me here? What in the world am I supposed to do now? Is it even worth being a leader?

I can’t help but wonder about the disciples between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Their leader, their rabbi, had just been killed. What kind of Messiah gets himself killed? Where did that leave the movement? What were they supposed to do now? Were their lives at risk, too? Could they have prevented Judas’ betrayal? Why would Jesus allow this to happen? Was it worth continuing? And if not, what would they do instead?

There’s no way they could have anticipated the joy that awaited them on Sunday.

As I look back on my life, I see this same story emerge: In some of the darkest times, when I wanted to give up, I couldn’t anticipate what was waiting for me around the bend. That’s why I’m convinced that one of the biggest factors in great leaders is resilience—the act of continuing on, even in the worst situations. The ability to get back up again after setbacks, especially the devastating ones, sets great leaders apart, because we can only experience the blessings if we stick out the burdens.

Angela Duckworth writes in her book Grit: “Staying on the treadmill is one thing…but getting back on the treadmill the next day, eager to try again is grit.” She adds that “grit is more stamina than intensity.” As leaders, it’s critical that we develop this resiliency muscle, working to improve over time. Many leaders can sprint hard for a short amount of time, but the leaders in history that we remember are those who stayed with it long enough to have tremendous impact.

Here are five ways I’ve learned to develop resiliency as a leader:

1. Focus on the mission.

One of my favorite Bible verses is Galatians 6:9: “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right
time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.” Paul is writing this letter because only a year out from his first missionary journey, the church in Galatia is already preaching a false gospel. I can only imagine his frustration. And yet he reminds them—and perhaps himself—to keep going. Paul can keep going despite this setback because he’s focused on the bigger mission, expanding God’s kingdom. Without this focus, I can imagine it would have been easy to give up on them or, perhaps, give up on missionary work in general. If a church can’t keep it together for even a year, is it really worth it? Paul knows it is, and he writes that when we keep going, focused on the mission, we will reap blessing at the right time.

This isn’t just a biblical principle, though. In How Remarkable Women Lead, the authors explain that “people who have a deep sense of meaning about what they do are happier and more energized and far more resilient.” Leaders, they write, who have a mission, who know they are changing the world, are much more likely to continue when things get tough. They’re willing and able to navigate setbacks because they see the greater good ahead. So when things start getting difficult, I like to focus on my calling and on the mission God has for me. When I do, I’m able to see setbacks as part of a much bigger, longer journey.

2. Have realistic expectations for yourself.

Leaders are often high-capacity people who eagerly take on more and more, especially if it’s in an area they’re passionate about. We all have limitations, however, and ignoring them doesn’t put us in a good position. If we’re struggling to keep up with life and work because we’ve said yes to too many things, a setback could topple us completely.

As much as I want to believe I don’t have limitations, I do. I don’t have limitless energy or creativity or money or time. I have to recognize what I’m actually capable of in a day, a week, and a month, and plan accordingly, leaving a little bit of margin every day for unexpected items. And I have to evaluate this often because I’m capable of different expectations at different times. New parents can barely think long enough to make a grocery list, and someone who’s just taken on a new role with a learning curve probably can’t take on too much else. When I expect the right amount from myself—not too much or too little—I have margin to spare for unexpected setbacks.

3. Engage in self-care.

Understanding what you need to thrive can help you become a resilient leader. You know what that is for me? Rest. Plus, I need time to think, time outside in nature, and time to be creative. In a nutshell, self-care helps remind me who I am at my core and that I have worth and value. When I take care of myself in these ways, I’m significantly more resilient. Setbacks don’t feel like the end of the world, and I’m able to think clearly and wisely. When I can think realistically about my situation, I can make a strategy to move forward.

Unfortunately, we often wait to take care of ourselves until we’re in way over our head. We only stop the negative self-talk when it becomes overwhelming, and we get a massage only when we can’t turn our neck. But consistently taking care of our emotional, spiritual, and mental health will help us roll with the punches and navigate setbacks with wisdom and grace.

4. Get the support you need.

Leaders like to, well, lead. And leading is often a solo job. So many leaders learn to work alone. But resilient leaders know they need support—that they’re better when they can lean on others. I met with a dear ministry friend today. When we get together, we can commiserate about the hard stuff, the setbacks, the devastating blows. But we also encourage each other to keep going. This isn’t done in an empty, “just keep swimming” kind of way, because we know each other well. We’ve walked together down tough roads. We know each other’s strengths and limitations. I know her story, and I know what this difficulty triggers in her. I know the insecurities that are bound to creep up in her. I know the questions that will run through her mind. So when I tell her, “I’m proud of you. I know this isn’t easy, but you’re in exactly the right place at the right time,” it has weight. We all need people who know us that way. People who can encourage us, cry with us, and even warn us when we’re headed down an unhealthy path. When we know we’ve got someone in our corner, we can move forward with confidence.

5. Take ownership for yourself and your actions.

My favorite leaders to follow are those who are self-aware. They know their strengths and weaknesses, and they’re actively leaning into their strengths while working on their weaknesses. I appreciate leaders who know what they’re not great at and delegate those tasks to talented people on their team. I deeply respect leaders who can openly admit how they contribute to negative results and share what they’re doing to change. Leaders who see themselves as incapable of changing their circumstances, simply reacting to things that happen to them, don’t stay in the game long. Let’s be honest, sometimes we are reacting to things that have happened to us, and we didn’t contribute much (or at all) to the problem. Even then, though, resilient leaders take ownership of their ability to solve the problem—instantly reframing the situation as a problem-solving opportunity.

Leaders who take ownership for themselves can also ask for what they need—because they know what they need. Maybe it’s delegating tasks they’re weak at to talented people on their team. Maybe it’s some time alone to think before responding. Maybe it’s a class or book or mentor in a certain area they feel lost in. When you have what you need, it’s a lot easier to be resilient.

It’s not always easy to be resilient. After all, it can be tiring to pick yourself up again for the 60th time. Other times we have experienced real hurt, and we need some time to heal. Many times fear wins out. We’re afraid we can’t fix it, that we’ll experience another setback, that we’ll never be what our team needs, that we’ll let people down, that we won’t be able to handle it. And that’s why it’s so exciting to watch resilient leaders, because they just keep going, trusting that it will work out in the end, knowing that they have the power to be part of the solution, if only they stick around long enough.

Amy Jackson is managing editor of SmallGroups.com, WomenLeaders.com, and Christian Bible Studies. Follow her on Twitter @AmyKJackson.

© 2017 Amy Simpson.