April 13, 2021
Resilience is the New Black
Everywhere we turn these days we find resilience. It’s the new black, in vogue, and worn by most everyone to protect against stress, fatigue, and burnout. Even before the brutal Covid-19 pandemic, resilience was in style. Books, articles, and courses proliferate (we offer them, too!); it is the item to have and acquire, like black articles of clothing. The more resilience in your closet, the more options or qualities of well-being to wear day-to-day or for special occasions.
The term resilience has lost some meaning over the past year. It feels overused, a trendy conversation topic rather than a lived practice. I’ve been reflecting and asking myself – what is at the heart of resilient leadership? What is the center point from which we can bounce back and forward, learn and adapt, and show up confidently and true to ourselves in a chaotic, changing environment?
I’ve come to realize through my own mindfulness practice and through my work with leaders that this centered calm is equanimity. It is a must-have resilience garment for every closet, an article of clothing that suits every setting and all types of people. Equanimity is defined as “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” Wisdom traditions, primarily Buddhism, highlight mental balance as well as a compassionate impartiality that fosters nondiscrimination and inclusion. Equanimity is a shift away from Mine/Yours and Us/Them. It moves us to a WE mindset versus the THEY thinking and Othering that has become so pervasive and corrosive in our organizations and society.
Equanimity is not cold detachment, indifference, and aloofness as it is sometimes perceived. It’s full acceptance of what is present, and it brings active engagement, with a curiosity and openness that invites others into a shared space of calm presence. This space is created when we are not overly drawn to or opposed to anything or anyone. Think of it as a middle way between what we are really attracted to and what we want to run from. This awareness of when we are moving toward or moving away from people, places or things can be especially helpful in our relationships. For example, there are bound to be team members we find ourselves more in synch with, which results in our spending more time with them to the detriment of other team members. This behavior can breed resentment and/or disengagement when observed by the team. Not surprisingly, mindfulness facilitates equanimity by helping us to become acutely aware of this strong desire to be with certain people, or when we have an aversion toward others. We can then pause and open a space to return to a more centered disposition which allows us to appreciate people in a more balanced way.
Working with executives, I’ve learned that equanimous behaviors (yes, it’s a word), like holding a composed center when bombarded with complex situations, difficult decisions, and bad news, is highly valued by employees. This centered, focused, and calm demeanor has been especially vital over the past year with Covid-19, racial injustice, and economic hardship changing the way we relate to and work with each other. When leaders show up in a balanced and purposeful way, those around them are allowed to express their full talents and creativity because they feel psychologically safe and valued.
Here’s a comment from a 360 interview about an executive leading from a place of equanimity: “She doesn’t get overly excited or down when things are going very well or when we hit a wall. It’s like she acknowledges and absorbs what happened and then shifts her focus to the next important topic. The impact for the team is less disruption and less drama. We’re all calmer because she’s calm.” Not a bad way to lead a team, especially during these uncertain times.
How does this leader remain so steeped in equanimity that her team would “follow her anywhere,” they are so engaged? Was she born even-keeled and equipped with a peaceful mind, ready to calmly deal with all the drama her team and organization present to her every day? Not quite. She has worked at it with patience and perseverance against the backdrop of whatever craziness she’s presented with at home or at work every day. As the mother of two young children, she carves out the time, with the help of her partner, for morning meditation and yoga before “even thinking about work.” On weekends, and sometimes during the week, she walks or runs at the local park to “clear my head in nature.”
Neuroscience suggests the capacity for emotional centeredness is available to all of us. According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of “How Emotions are Made,” a way to be equanimous is to develop heightened “emotional granularity.” This means building an expanded range of emotional self-awareness and insight, and the language to go with it. For example, instead of recognizing if we are happy or sad, we get in touch with how happy or how sad we are, name it as elation or grief, and make note of the experience in our bodies. In this way, we gain more mastery of our emotional reactivity. We can even be proactive in constructing positive emotional states, like starting a meeting with a humorous story before diving into a serious topic. The main takeaway from brain science is that higher emotional granularity results in better emotional regulation and better relationships. Developing this emotional awareness in support of a balanced internal state takes focused attention and practice.
Another practice of mindful reflection that expands self-awareness and creates equanimity was developed by Michelle McDonald, a senior mindfulness teacher. Her mindfulness technique is presented using the acronym RAIN, presented below with my adapted explanations, it is meant to be practiced in order:
whatever internal experience is happening—feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations
Accept and Allow
the experience to be there without pushing it away or pulling it closer
without judgment feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, and ask – “what is happening in my body and my mind right now?”
Notice with Nonidentification
moment to moment without adding “I, me, mine.” Simply note it.
Equanimity builds resilience and is an outcome of resilient practices. Whatever our leadership role, we can dress in equanimous black and make mindful choices to respond with steadiness, caring, and openness in the midst of anything that comes our way.