Bouncing back after sandy – a matter of resilience

Last Monday, my flight to Chicago for a client engagement got cancelled. New York was busy gearing up for super storm Sandy that was expected to hit the city that night. And yet, despite the imminent threat of havoc and devastation, there continued to be moments of optimism and hope. That very same day, a photographer for the New York Times captured  this little girl who used the unusual sidewalk cover to practice her balancing skills.

Today is a week after this photo was taken. Sandy has taken quite a toll on New York City. Most likely this little girl had the week off from school. Hopefully she and hers are safe and sound. After almost a week without power we have light and heating back just north of Manhattan where our family lives. Yet, there are still thousands of households in our neighborhood without this luxury. Friends come to charge their electronic gadgets, to take a warm shower and to enjoy a hot soup in front of our fire place. My husband was experiencing ‘cabin fever’ after this week of being locked up inside. He went out for a bike ride today, only to come back with stories of how he and his biking buddies found themselves getting off their bikes half of the time to climb fallen trees that were blocking the roads. Phone lines continue to be down and internet access is spotty at best. The number of cars lined up at gas stations add up to a four hour wait time and there is no guarantee that there will still be gas left by the time it is one’s turn to pump. These are all stories of sacrifice, but there are many more stories that tell of heart breaking losses.

Yet, over the course of the past week I was able to witness many examples of people’s ability to bounce back from adversity and to model a resilient mindset. Resilience is a hot topic when it comes to our work with executives in organizations who are faced with enormous pressures and stress on a daily basis.

What exactly characterizes stress-hardy people? Columbia University’s Suzanne Kobasa was one of the first ones in the late 70s to describe the patterns that allow some of us to survive if not grow during times of stress and adversity. There are essentially three C’s of resilience (much of which appear to be common sense, only to be confirmed by recent research):

1/Commitment: what values can I commit myself to?

We generally tend to be less stressed when we sense that we serve our values and follow our passions. As one of New York’s premier hospitals NYU Langone lost power after Sandy’s impact flooded its basement, nurses for hours manually squeezed air into the lungs of patients who needed to be on the respirator. An intensive care nurse carried a baby and his oxygen tank down nine flights of slippery stairs, guided only by flashlight, to bring it to safety.

Under less dramatic circumstances, looking at our commitment can simply mean tapping into the “why” of our decision to work in a certain field or profession. Taking this moment to reflect may allow us to re-ignite the passion that brought us to a certain job (or it may give us the necessary ‘kick in the rear end’ to change careers). Building an awareness around what matters to us, a sense of purpose, and being intentional about honoring our values allows us to endure difficulties more readily as they arise and stand in our way.

2/Challenge: how can I mine my crucibles? 

Rather than focus their energy on what is missing or on the mistakes they made, resilient individuals have the capacity to accept the difficulty they are faced with and look for what they can learn from the situation. Storm Sandy was not the first storm to hit NYC, and it will not be the last. Many New Yorkers who had gone through the devastation that hurricane Irene caused last year subsequently had purchased generators that allowed them to stay afloat in the current environment.

When we partner with our clients who have gone through tough professional experiences such as failing as a leader we ask that they ‘mine their crucibles’ as we help them build their authentic leadership profile. Not surprisingly, clients often instinctively resist this request, as these sessions can be emotionally difficult. However, if they wish to do better in the future when it comes to managing set backs they need to build this muscle of learning from challenges.

3/Control: what is the part that I can influence?

Less resilient and optimistic people express what psychologists have termed ‘learned helplessness’. Their tendency is to assume  that they lack the ability to impact the situation they are facing.  The stress hardy individuals, on the other hand, focus on what aspects they are able to influence, a confidence boosting attitude. As Sandy left 800,000 New York City residents in the dark, candles and torch lights were brought to use and people resorted to charging their cell phones in their cars and at charging stations on the street. Those with generators reached out to a less fortunate neighbor who needed their support. For those who cared but were too far away to help, they still could make donations and the Red Cross has received over $35 million in contributions to date.

Even if there is nothing left to do, we are always free to think what we want. It reminds me of  a German song from the eighteen hundreds: “Die Gedanken sind frei” (loosely translated as “thoughts are unbound”). It is up to us to reframe what is difficult into something that can inspire and transform.

Coming back to the little girl on the photo – she could have been scared and seen the sidewalk’s planks as a disfiguration. Instead, she chose to see it as a stimulus to play.