Developing resilient leaders for the future

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By Connie Book, Provost and Dean, Citadel College

Leadership and the development of leaders is not an exact science. Scholars do agree that people respond differently to challenging situations. The phenomenon of resilience, or what some refer to as grit, is a leadership characteristic often described as a new essential leadership skill. As scholar Rosabeth Moss Kanter observed in the Harvard Business Review, “The difference between winners and losers is how they handle losing.” We all face moments in our operational strategies that fail. Researchers find that resilient people exhibit mastery over failure by taking the lessons learned from it to create a bridge for moving forward.

We teach resilience at The Citadel, directly and indirectly. We teach it directly in our leadership classes, where cadets are introduced to the theories regarding what drives resilience through case studies of resilient people. We also teach it indirectly through the military structure of the college, which requires cadets to meet physical and leadership challenges and where a 100 percent success rate is impossible. Cadets learn that a person has to be willing to try again, to find a voice inside that persists. Duke Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski is famous for his phrase, “next play.” In a nutshell, it reminds players to let go of the play that went wrong and focus on what’s ahead—that’s where the winning is—and that’s what we try to teach cadets.

Cadets face physical, academic and emotional challenges and are expected to respond within a framework of acting honorably with duty and with respect. To lie, cheat or steal, even in the face of these challenges, is not tolerated. The human characteristics of resilience are essential for advancing and evolving as a principled leader in the Corps of Cadets. An important element of their training each year is the annual Principled Leadership Symposium. Hosted by the Krause Center for Leadership and Ethics, the 2017 symposium, now in its 10th year, will bring student delegates from military academies and institutions around the nation together to learn about leadership under the theme of Resilience in a Changing World.

When Citadel alumni talk about their transformation experiences as cadets, their stories of resilience are compelling. Recently, Chris Clark, an attorney in Atlanta, spoke about his first year at The Citadel and how in the face of constrained resources, he and his classmates learned that they were stronger together than alone. The bonds formed were steadfast, and they knew going forward they would never face a challenge alone again. This strong network, one of The Citadel’s hallmarks, is an example of what researchers describe as a key feature of a resilient organization.

Not everyone faces adversity well, but the skill to move forward is without question a vital one for effective leadership. Steven Snyder, author of the book Leadership and the Art of Struggle, recently wrote, “Yet despite the overwhelming consensus and supporting evidence that resilience is vital for success in today’s business environment, the truth remains: resilience is hard. It requires the courage to confront painful realities, the faith that there will be a solution when one isn’t immediately evident, and the tenacity to carry on despite a nagging gut feeling that the situation is hopeless.”

Resilient people use traits, such as accountability, collaboration, confidence and ingenuity, to create meaning from strife. The phrase “a natural born leader” might direct someone to believe that these characteristics are innate. However, researchers have found that, in fact, resilience is learned and those who can learn from it are successful. The most successful resilient people leverage their learnings to provide service to others and their organizations.

The shared resilient experiences of leaders from across a variety of disciplines will benefit attendees of the 2017 Principled Leadership Symposium for some time to come. Because leadership development is not an exact science, our best bet is to engage with those who have exhibited the characteristics of resilience throughout their lives and careers to glean as much as we can.

Connie Book, Ph.D., is provost and dean of the college, and the second-ranking official at The Citadel. She is a tenured professor in the Department of English and a researcher in the field of telecommunications.

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