Increasing Resilience Reservoir: Experience of Senior Corporate Executives.

AuthorRaghuraman, P.G.


Increasing volatility-uncertainty-complexity-ambiguity (VUCA) in the business environment due to geopolitical tensions, economic globalization, terrorism, and technology disruptions, are bringing in new challenges and opportunities for businesses. These environmental shifts call for business leaders who can effectively manage themselves, and the organizations they lead, through change and uncertainty by demonstrating resilience. Resilience is needed to bounce back from failure, and adversities. In fact, hardships, failures, and career setbacks can be opportunities for leaders to learn, grow and develop. Self-differentiated leaders, often formed through experiences of pain and struggle, possess the capacity to lead courageously and effectively (Conner, 1993; Bennis & Thomas, 2007; Howard & Irving, 2014). However, personal development processes that leaders, particularly business leaders, undergo during adversities (Wood & Vilkinas, 2004) has received limited attention. Typically, researchers have used armed forces personnel (Atwater et al., 1999), and undergraduate or management students (Erez & Judge, 2001) as respondents for their studies. Inferences from such studies may not apply to senior corporate executives. The context in which they operate and the differences in their pathways may have shaped a very different cognitive frame (Conger & Benjamin, 1999) among corporate executives vis-a-vis the subjects of these studies. Building on this background, we focused on understanding how resilience works among corporate executives.

Theoretical Background

"Psychological resilience is defined as the role of mental processes and behavior in promoting personal assets and protecting an individual from the potential negative effect of stressors" (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2012). One of the foundational studies on the subject focused on children as subjects of their study (Werner, 1982; Werner & Smith, 1992). Some others relied on problem-focused and emotion-focused coping in a personally meaningful situation and the emotions associated with it (Folkman & Lazarus, 1990), and, how efficacy influences a person's resilience to adversity. In this research work we focused on exploring five leadership resilience themes across dimensions such as--micro/macro adversity, emotional experience, anchoring to one's strengths in the face of adversity, enhancing one's resilience through others, and, accepting to go with the flow--which were expected to be pertinent in the current context.

Theme One: Impact of Micro & Macro Adversities on Leaders

Masten and Reed (2002) link hardships to resilience building and Richardson (2002) suggests that resilience can increase when individuals bounce back from an adverse event. Margolis and Stolz (2010) indicate that understanding the perceived breadth and duration of challenges could help managers develop a "resilience regimen." McCall (2004) mentions that leaders indicated that periods of intense hardships influenced their leadership formation.

Conner (1993) explains three types of changes that require resilience--micro (where the individual must change), organizational (affecting a larger group in an organization) and macro (change that affects everyone). We utilized this concept to define challenges and adverse experiences as micro and macro adversities - Micro adversity, where the experience that impacts the leader or their family personally, and Macro adversity when there is a significant external event triggered from outside (such as the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001). We wanted to understand the differential impacts and responses of business executives to micro and macro adversities.

Theme Two: Leaders & Emotions

Emotion is typically portrayed as "bad" while rationality is considered as "good." Goleman (1998) talks about emotional intelligence as important to leadership in challenging situations. Bennis and Thomas (2007) noted that leaders even when battered by experience, do not see themselves as helpless or find themselves paralyzed. Flach (1988), based on a study of patients, indicates that resilient people "reacted emotionally, weeping, expressing anger, sharing their fears and hopes ...". While research usually does not cover emotions when faced with adversity, Galli and Vealey (2008) noted in their study of top-level athletes that they felt 'angry, hurt, frustrated, neglected ...' and so on. Southwick and Charney (2012) provide examples where participants use emotions such as anger and grief to search for meaning or to fuel courage and compassion. We would like to understand the role of emotions among business executives when they experience adversities.

Theme Three: Role of Anchoring

Bandura (1982) indicates that previous successes in similar situations could lead to self-efficacy. Werner (1992) points out that setting goals and planning for the future are influential factors in dealing with adversity. Loehr and Schwartz (2001) mention that building the cognitive strengths of athletes and leaders are crucial for enhancing performance. Thomas (2008) suggests that leaders need to deploy a personal learning strategy to perform and practice at the same time, to hone their strengths and deploy them in challenging situations. Greenleaf et al. (2001) studied 15 Olympians and found that, among other factors, having high levels of confidence seemed to be essential. O'Leary (1998) suggests that people can thrive (not just survive) in the face of adversity, by mobilizing personal and social resources. In this study, we would like to understand how business leaders leveraged their strengths when faced with difficult situations.

Theme Four: Role of Others

Werner (1992), Bandura (1997), Bennis and Thomas (2007), and Mangurian (2007) mention the role of social support most resilient people leverage in trying circumstances. Southwick and Charney (2012) indicate that by reaching out for support our world expands, and positive social support is associated with resilience to stress; social support is one of the ten resilience factors, according to them. Bandura (1997) proposed verbal persuasion by powerful experts and attractive people as an antecedent to self-efficacy.

Werner's study on at-risk students showed that performing students engaged several sources of support. Mangurian (2007) felt that outpouring of support from family and friends helped him move beyond his past troubles without regrets. All the resilient individuals interviewed by Southwick and Charney (2012) had role models who inspired them. They suggest that during times of high stress, one must actively reach out to family and friends for their emotional support, assistance, and advice. Conner (1993) suggests that individuals and leaders have limited assimilation points which are used by them to manage the needs emerging from micro, organizational and macro changes. Akin to this, we contemplate that business executives would leverage on others to enhance their assimilation points during adverse times, which we term as 'resilience reservoir.'

Theme Five: Fighting Back

The vast majority of powerful learning experiences reported as developmental involve facing adversity or struggling with the unfamiliar. Wood and Vilkinas, (2007) noted that "critical developmental experiences such as crises, failures, and achievements create lessons that generate new perspectives or skills or a shift in character." Resilience is built through life experiences and the leader's capacity to...

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