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Resiliency and Leadership

Resilient leadership has been a model and concept around for several decades. The foundation of the Resilient Leadership model began in the research of Dr. Murray Bowen (1913-1990) who was looking into family systems and how they operate as emotional systems. In 2009, Bob Duggan and Jim Moyer released their book titled “Resilient Leadership” adapting the Bowen family model for organizations (There is a 2.0 version of the book now). In its essences, resilient leadership is the ability to adapt to new circumstances and challenges. It involves sustaining energy levels, coping with change, bouncing back from setbacks, and being able to read the emotions of those around them and respond to them.


These leaders possess both positivity and realism, capable of energizing and grounding their teams. A quick Google search or a stroll down the business aisle in a bookstore reveals countless articles and books on resilient leadership. The theory has transcended the individual level, extending to the organizational level, a testament to its enduring popularity, especially in these "unprecedented times." However, as leaders embrace the core attributes, it's crucial to scrutinize potential pitfalls, including the unintentional exploitation of individuals' traumas.


Ivonne, what do you mean by exploitation? Amid ongoing crises, an expanding wealth gap, and heightened awareness of societal injustices, there's a growing call for organizations to address and eliminate these issues. This call is accompanied by increased grant funding and support from corporations. Discussions around the importance of representation in race, ethnicities, and genders are rightfully gaining traction, with demands for diverse identities to be reflected in staff. However, a concerning gap persists, not only in terms of diversity in race, ethnicity, and gender but also in lived experiences. Here lies the thin line and the potential for exploitation: hiring individuals solely because they come from the communities or have faced the issues the organization is trying to address.


While there's a compelling reason to hire individuals with similar lived experiences to the communities they serve—facilitating a genuine understanding of the challenges faced—organizations must tread carefully. The thin line is crossed when:


  1. Ignoring the Emotional Labor:

  • Organizations must recognize and value the emotional labor involved in sharing personal experiences and perspectives. The emotional labor can lead to retraumatization and burnout.

  • Providing Comprehensive Support:

  • Organizations should prioritize the well-being of their staff by offering comprehensive support, including mental health resources. Health plans with low to no copays for mental health treatment and partnerships with online mental health services can be instrumental in addressing the emotional toll.

  • Implement flexible work schedules to ensure staff have the time and space to decompress and focus on their mental health.

  • Manageable Caseloads for 1:1 Support:

  • If organizations offer 1:1 support to community members, ensuring that caseloads are manageable for staff is crucial. Overburdening staff with excessive caseloads can hinder their ability to provide effective support and can lead to burnout.


2. Raises Lack Clarity and Equity

  • Equality means providing the same for all. Equity acknowledges that everyone does not start off at the same place and hence to ensure fairness and justice are embedded, adjustments are made.

  • Transparent Performance Evaluations:

  • During performance evaluations, it becomes challenging to measure success without clear criteria. Organizations should establish transparent evaluation metrics that consider the unique starting points of individuals and provide clarity on the expectations for advancement.

  • While those who are in people facing roles may not be bringing in the donors and funding, they play a critical role in accomplishing goals and meeting the mission of the organization. Their criteria should not match those in development or in the data team. Nor should other duties as assign carry more weight than their central role of working with community members.


3. Assuming Only Similar Backgrounds Can Work With Communities:

  • Acknowledge that diverse teams bring a range of skills and perspectives, regardless of personal background. Avoid pigeonholing staff based on their experiences, recognizing that a shared background does not guarantee effective communication or understanding.

  • Recruitment Beyond Similar Backgrounds:

  • Encourage staff recruitment practices that prioritize diversity in skills and perspectives, even if the background is different. This can enrich the organization's capabilities and enhance its ability to connect with a broader range of communities.

  • Having similar backgrounds does not instantly make a person a resilient leader. Yes, these folks are resilient individuals. They have and continue to persevere. I do not want to take that away from them. But, resilient leadership is not only the individual’s ability to heal, but how:

  • they are the able to make decisions in the moment

  • rally up a team who feels stuck in the mud

  • are strategic and to already have potential solutions in place for different scenarios

  • they create systems to ensure ongoing support exist for staff and community members without burn out

  • reflection and assessment are core to their style in order to celebrate and improve

  • are communicative and transparent all while managing crises and roadblocks


4. Lack of Professional Development Opportunities:

  • Ensure that all staff, irrespective of their background, have all the skills they need to work with communities. Providing professional development bridges any gaps in skills or knowledge and ensures equitable growth within the organization.

  • Investment in Employee Growth:

  • Showcase the organization's commitment to employee growth by investing in ongoing professional development for all staff. This not only addresses skill gaps but also demonstrates that the organization values the continuous learning and advancement of its employees. You can provide the training to create resilient leaders. Investing in each individual is critical when working on societial issues that can be heavy.

  • Shared Responsibilities During Crises:

  • Foster a culture of shared responsibility by ensuring that all staff members, not just those in community-facing roles, receive training. This prepares the entire organization to respond effectively to crises and allows for seamless collaboration when specific roles need to be temporarily filled.


5. Silencing Criticism:

  • Encourage Open Communication:

  • Establish a culture that encourages open communication and constructive criticism. This ensures that concerns and suggestions are heard, fostering an environment of continuous improvement.

  • Create a system for those who are working with the community directly are able to provide input when decisions are being made. The ones working directly with your community and population knows what will and won’t work. Excluding them for the room where it happens will lead to program misalignment and mistrust in leadership.


6. Programming Without Input:

  • Engage both staff and community members in the development of programs. Their input is invaluable for creating initiatives that genuinely address the community's needs, rather than making assumptions based on shared backgrounds.


7. Lack of Promoting from Within:

  • Address the tendency to overlook internal talent by actively promoting from within the organization. This not only recognizes the contributions of existing staff but also motivates others by demonstrating a commitment to internal growth.


Navigating this thin line is essential for organizations committed to genuine inclusivity. It involves acknowledging the value of diverse perspectives, avoiding assumptions, and actively working to foster an environment where everyone feels valued and heard. By recognizing and addressing these challenges, organizations can ensure that their commitment to resilient leadership aligns with ethical and inclusive practices. In doing so, we move beyond mere representation, striving for meaningful and impactful engagement with communities. The journey toward resilient leadership becomes not just a model but a lived experience, fostering authentic connections and positive change.

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