Managerial Resilience – Not as Clear-Cut as Often Presented


Too Much Talk of Resiliency, Adversity Puts Hotel Leaders in Wrong Mindset

(first published in Hotel News Now)


The end of a year, or the beginning of a new one, is often used by companies to hit a reset button — to identify, fine-tune and then execute new strategies that help them move the needle in a significant way.

Having participated over the past two months in many such meetings, it struck me how often a “return to normality” was wished for. In line with that, many organisations mentioned wanting to build resilience to withstand, “just long enough,” the expected external pressures and the adversities.

All too often, it seemed to me, people are just focused on the literal meaning of resilience. “Resilience” is being equated to overcoming an obstacle, to quickly returning to pre-crisis mode, or to coping with the perceived negative effects of a situation. It has a connotation of having to overcome a misfortune, to achieve something despite an adversity thrown our way.

No doubt, the components of what we define as resilience — such as innate optimism, resourcefulness, self-awareness or self-belief — are all relevant in today’s business context. What, though, if we more consciously acknowledge that adversity is just part of the everyday life? Is the labelling of overcoming difficulties and the constant talk about adversity not running the risk of adopting, or staying in, a state of mind that is all too tied to the idea of a crisis? Is there not an argument to move away from the coping mechanisms of a resilient leader to the change-management and turnaround traits of a resilient pragmatist?

It might be semantics but the way we express ourselves often influences and shapes the way we act.

Those who we label as resilient leaders are essentially tasked to inspire and to formulate action that drives change. We want them to respond to challenges that often incorporate conflicting, or contradictory, forces without choosing and/or staying firm on a particular course of action.

For example, we want them to eradicate ambiguity whilst at the same time accepting it as a given. We want them to react to external influences whilst proactively preparing for what may come. We want them to keep the bigger picture in mind without losing sight of the details. We want them to have a clear vision and to firmly execute ideas whilst simultaneously displaying nimbleness to “course correct,” if and when needed. We want them to convey very clear messages, a vision, whilst constantly listening for feedback. In other words, we want them to be heads-down — unwaveringly pursuing their vision — whilst also being heads-up — always keeping the bigger picture in mind.

Pointing out this paradox to the executives partaking in the meetings, I often drew a parallel to their respective organisation’s business strategy. In the very same end-of-year business reviews, or new year kick-off meetings, leadership teams often asked: “What is it that we do really well?” “What is it that we are passionate about?” And, “what drives our economic results?” It is then often advised to home in on that to gain a competitive advantage over others.

In other words, the organisations often talked about very focused business strategies. Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make The Leap … And Others Don’t” has widely shared this notion. Yet, the most recent crisis has also shown that diversifying and potentially exploring new business lines has certainly held many organisations in good stead — and many leadership teams have exactly asked that of their organisation. They wanted everyone to keep the bigger picture in mind, to keep exploring alternatives, and to look beyond what one has defined as the business strategy.

Neither one nor the other is necessarily better — it is the mix that probably makes the winning formula. In my mind, the same applies to the notion of resilient leaders. Focusing too much on overcoming a crisis, to returning to normality, runs the risk of losing sight of what the realities are. Do we not always have to somehow overcome one crisis after another? Do we not always have to fight for talent, to overcome an economic crisis, or to review operating costs because of raising food prices, rents, etc.? Do we not have to deal with either the consequences of entering or exiting a political union, a labour union, or some other type of interest groups? Are there not always, somewhere on the globe, some sort of conversations about protectionism as it relates to the local labour market — followed by talks about the need to open up the market to attract and retain people from elsewhere?

For those who believe that this holds true, should we not ask ourselves:

  • “When does a crisis stop being a crisis?”
  • “What does returning to normality really mean?”
  • “When do we know that this anticipated ‘day after tomorrow’ finally has arrived?”

One can very well argue that it will never come, that tomorrow will be different than today and that, although perhaps a “crisis” has been averted, another one surely waits around the corner. And that is not a view of a pessimist but one of a realist. And it is not a message of doom and gloom but one that appreciates that perhaps our often short-term view on things is biased. We all tend to work toward goals in the here and now, or in the tomorrow that have been set by the terms and conditions of the today.

Naturally, we thus regard changing market realities as unwelcome or unexpected. In hindsight, though, it is probably fair to say that we often missed tell-tale signs of things to come. Often, we look back and say that we have actually been there before, that something similar has happened already — and that we thought it was over back then and aimed to return to what we perceived as our “normal.”

We should thus move away from focusing too much on the stoic and steadfast characteristics of the person who can withstand it all to overcome a crisis, moving more closely instead to the astuteness, and “foxy-ness,” of a resilient pragmatist who does not fight a crisis but considers it part and parcel of everyday life — a leader who “cuts through the noise,” who rationalizes information, and who is ready to unlearn the learned.