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Resilience: The Butterfly and the Bee

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“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” (Mike Tyson)

(Pic: Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali, who beat challenger Joe Frazier on a TKO)

It’s not “if,” it’s “when….”

No one is immune from getting “hit” in large and small ways in life. Loss, divorce, recessions, illness and more impact us profoundly, as do any number of daily stressors; promotions (or loss of), negative comments from a spouse or co-worker or an email received by our boss at 2:00 a.m.

In our increasingly complex and demanding world, our nervous systems and coping strategies are regularly ‘hit’ by large and small stressors. Mike Tyson put it this way, Prior to a fight, people were asking him, ‘What’s going to happen?’ ‘He’s going to give you a lot of lateral movement. He’s going to move, he’s going to dance. He’s going to do this, do that,’ to which Tyson’s responded,

“Everybody has a plan until they get hit.”

No amount of hypervigilence or planning can protect us from the internal and external hits that are a part of being human. We may have a finely detailed five year strategic plan, but life requires the we be resilient and present to make it happen in the ‘ring.’ So what’s the challenge? As humans we have developed tendencies or patterns of reactivity we default to when triggered by perceived threats (real or imagined) and hinder our ability to respond in creative and effective ways. As individuals, these become habituated early in life and are usually out of our conscious control. For instance, an employee ‘freezes’ or numbs out when criticized, while another may angrily defend. An executive unilaterally “attacks” the problem or micromanages her team, seeking out others to blame or hold responsible, while another leans back and waits for others to step forward. Entire organizations can have reactive styles as well, usually reflecting the tendencies of the leaders.

Floating like a butterfly…

Reactivity in it’s essence is a threat response designed to avert crisis and return organizations and people back to their homeostatic ‘comfort zone.’ What this means is that reactive people and organizations don’t grow until they shift into a different way of being. In contrast, the practice of resilience increases the capacity to recalibrate, make better choices and to lead effectively. Resilient people and organizations are committed to development, growth and improvement even as it requires people to step outside of their comfort zone.

The following are some simple (but not easy) practices to help build resilience and keep you in the ‘ring’ as a leader in your business and life. When ‘hit’ by an internal or external trigger:

1.) Realize

Take a breath and acknowledge you have been triggered. You know that feeling in your gut when your boss reminds you of your pending review (flight), when your employee has called in sick for the 4th Friday in a row (fight), when a colleague questions you in a meeting of your peers (freeze), or when that car has barely missed your front fender? Our nervous systems are being triggered continually, and our bodies are there to let us know. The first and most important step is to accept that you are having a internal reaction to something that is happening in your psyche or in your life.

2.) Recover

Create space. When we’ve been punched, our nervous system needs to recover and return to an un-triggered place. How you do that depends on the degree to which you’ve been triggered. If the “charge’ from the event is simply requiring you to re-center, pausing, taking a deep breath, connecting with and acknowledging the reaction and your mood may be enough. If the event has emotionally hijacked you, as happens to everyone now and then, you may need more; a walk on the beach or in the parking lot, listening to some music, or taking any reasonable action or ritual that enables you to break the spell and pivot out of your current reactive state.

3.) Reflect

My way or the highway? The first two stages are the most difficult in breaking old patterns of reactivity, so congratulate yourself for allowing the discomfort of awareness in service of your own growth and leadership potential. In the ‘reflect’ stage, we’ve gotten to a place of choice, where we can decide to reenact old patterns and outcomes or move in a different direction. It’s time to reflect on what matters to us, connect with why it is so important as well as envisioning how we want to show up in order to move towards that reality. Side roads off the superhighway of old patterns may be bumpy at first, but will take you to a different destination.

4.) Face

Taking action from a place of presence and inner stability. Pausing, stepping back, creating space, and reflecting create perspective. Having regained a degree of calm that comes from a broader view, we have what we need to face into and engage constructively. “Facing,” is not looking at someone’s face while confronting them, but is a way of taking action while being connected to one’s own dignity and integrity while taking a stand and being in connection with others.

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Muhammed Ali served as the inspiration to me in this blog post. In his final years he faced into his life with resilience, devoting his time and energy in service to humanitarianism. Muhammed was ‘hit’ by many things in his life, a descendant of pre-Civil War era American slaves, he grew up in the segregated south where he experienced segregation and discrimination first hand. He was arrested, fined, stripped of his boxing license and title for following religious beliefs that endured and informed his values until the end.

Despite this or perhaps because of it, he devoted his life to world peace, civil rights, cross-cultural understanding, interfaith relations, humanitarianism, hunger relief, and the commonality of basic human values. My hope is that you’ll do a search and allow yourself to be inspired by the degree of commitment and contribution he made in this regard. Ali once said, “I’ve always wanted to be more than just a boxer. I wanted to use my fame, and this face that everyone knows so well, to help uplift and inspire people around the world.” He definitely accomplished this.

As I watched films of Muhammed Ali at this last stage of his life, I was moved by his indefatigable desire to serve, his embodied dignity and the humor that shined through his eyes even while suffering the devastating effects of Parkinson’s Disease. Inspired by ‘the Champ,’ I continue to reflect on the power of resilience, of consciously turning and facing into what “hits us” and the the ability we have to continue to grow and serve.

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