Growth In The Face Of Adversity

From Jennifer Tankersley

There is no question that the leaders of today are facing some of the biggest challenges of their careers. Thrust suddenly into unchartered territory by the pandemic, they are dealing with intense levels of uncertainty and volatility where their business decisions are laden with unprecedented layers of complexity.  Leaders, some of whom were already stretched thin and headed toward burn out, are now finding themselves forced to navigate critical business challenges while managing furloughs, layoffs and compensation cuts.  In the midst of this pressure, they are also traversing a completely different office landscape where working from a make-shift home space, meeting virtually and juggling home schooling and childcare is the new normal. From the perspective of a coach who works with business executives, this is not exactly an ideal formula for tackling personal growth.

Yet, in the last few months, I have inquisitively watched my clients move more fully and substantially into their leadership roles.  Some are finding the courage to step up and adopt those seemingly unattainable leadership qualities to which they have aspired.  Others are finally glimpsing the behaviors that have undermined their effectiveness in a way that feedback had never fully uncovered, thereby giving rise to significant change. Over and over, I am seeing leaders opening themselves up and leaning into the invitation to grow.

This begs the question; why now? How, in the midst of such precariousness and turmoil, are leaders showing up in a different way and journeying into the often uncomfortable process of growth? In my coaching work with business leaders, there appears to be three synergistic  factors at play that are accelerating these transformational shifts. 

1. DISRUPTION: While it may seem to be the least likely candidate to spur growth, this massive societal disruption seems to be doing just that. For many leaders, there is almost nothing status quo in the current environment and this impediment to routine has created just the push they need to awaken to new possibilities. For some, a shift that had felt insurmountable only months ago, is now bred from necessity.  Pure chaos has led to the breaking open of a perceived barrier. By way of illustration, one of my senior HR leader clients had been working to move out of execution into a more strategic role but continually struggled with delegating responsibility. Given both the external and internal threats resulting from the pandemic, she discerned that letting go and trusting her team was the only way forward. For another client, the current upheaval served to exaggerate his reactive tendencies toward conflict.  This amplification of his behavior forced him to acknowledge the impact it was having on his team. For others, the disordering of their lives has spawned a willingness to experiment with new approaches and create space for the possibility of doing things differently. 

2. REFLECTION: Disruption in and of itself, however, does not create lasting change. As John Dewey, a 20th-century philosopher of education taught “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” Our habits or tendencies are deeply rooted and, without a deliberate and measured move toward something new, we will be naturally pulled back to inertia. Reflection is a process of examining one’s beliefs and assumptions with the goal of accessing alternative perspectives. Reflection takes time, discipline and purposeful pauses in which new learning has an opportunity to germinate.  Unfortunately, our fast-paced, often reactive way of being doesn’t naturally lend itself to such attention. While the current environment doesn’t necessarily facilitate greater time for reflection, the mood people are finding themselves in seems to be nudging them in that direction. The space for reflection can be intentionally created when it is recognized as a powerful tool for growth. Recently, one of my clients was reflecting, with a bit of guilt, on how working from home had allowed her to finally slow down. She was dreading the thought of “going back to normal”.  We used her attention to what felt different to explore what was working, what had become possible and what actions she could take from this new, slower pace. As part of our exploration, she decided to start a daily journal to reflect on the shifts she wanted to keep, the impact they were having on her leadership and how she would take them forward when a new “normal” began.

3. RESILIENCE: When I consider the clients who are creating real change right now, they are commenting on their heightened sense of being able to change. Why does the current environment invoke that elevated level of ability to transform? In exploring that question, I am noticing a pattern of leaders who are, somehow, better resourcing themselves, and are thereby better able to withstand the discomfort associated with adaptation. Some of those I work with are building in time for self-care; something that had been poorly attended to in the past. A walk in the morning is replacing the commute time in the car.  Other clients are tending to their energy levels.  A client, who had perpetually shown up to our meetings drained and overwhelmed was struggling to understand why now, paradoxically, she was feeling so much more willingness to work on her ingrained behavioral patterns. She suffers from a longstanding pattern of defensiveness in which she frequently races to justify her position when confronted with opinions that differ from hers; a defensive mechanism that protects her from the discomfort of feeling exposed or unworthy. As we reflected on what was different, she noted that, as an introvert, the simple break from back-to-back in-person meetings and, for her, awkward social interactions, was not as taxing on her energy.  With that extra vigor, she was able to tolerate the discomfort of listening and not defending herself, creating opportunities to explore a reactive pattern that was no longer working for her. Other clients are sharing that previously neglected family time is now filling them with a sense of joy and aliveness – a foundation of resiliency.  These clients, in various forms, have reconnected with sources of energy and vitality that provide them the necessary reserve to work through and bounce back from challenge. Leaders who understand and embrace this are able to not only cope with the current state of affairs but are also able to demonstrate tremendous personal growth in spite of it.

Viktor Frankl, the famous Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, penned a postscript to his book Man’s Search for Meaning titled “The Case for Tragic Optimism.” He defines this as the ability to “remain, optimistic in spite of the “tragic triad,” … a triad which consists of … (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death.” While I am profoundly saddened by the way Covid-19 has impacted our world, the changes I am seeing in my clients brings me hope.  These are leaders with great influence and responsibiity, who are discovering greater possibilities within themselves and showing up more consciously for others. As a coach who is dedicated to changing the world through work, this is giving me great optimism amidst the tragedy and hardship we are collectively experiencing.  The great pause gifted to us by the 2020 pandemic is inviting the opportunity for genuine change through harnessing the power of disruption, reflection and resilience. With these conditions in place, true growth and transformation is not only possible but probable.