How Leaders Can Build Enduring Resilience

We’ve all heard the phrase, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

We’ve all heard the phrase, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” When we hear that statement, we most often think about time horizon — the message is to focus on the long-term, not the short. You must pace yourself for the lengthy journey, versus giving everything you have in a short burst. It’s not bad advice, and it feels especially relevant in our current situation with COVID-19 and all its variants. However, there’s more wisdom and nuance in that message if leaders can dig a little deeper.

Comparing the world of work to a marathon doesn’t quite give leaders justice. There is no doubt that training for a marathon is unbelievably challenging. There are months and months of focused training, countless hours of running, overcoming and nursing injuries, and staying laser focused on hydration and nutrition. There’s nothing easy about the process, which is why so few do it.

However, there is a clear beginning, milestones along the way, and a big conclusion. There are also plenty of rest days along the way to recuperate. It doesn’t feel fair to compare that to the work environment these days. It’s as if we are running a series of marathons, back-to-back, with little to no room for rest and no clear end point (unless you consider retirement, which feels distant on the horizon for many). As challenging as this is during “normal” times (whatever those are), we’re trying to operate in an exceptionally challenging moment in time. 

In “The Infinite Game,” Simon Sinek writes, “To succeed in the Infinite Game of business, we have to stop thinking about who wins or who’s the best and start thinking about how to build organizations that are strong enough and healthy enough to stay in the game for many generations to come.” This perspective applies perfectly to individual leaders and teams as well. How do we build leaders who are strong and healthy enough to stay in the game for decades to come?

While there are no easy answers to combatting fatigue and building resiliency, here are some best practices that leaders throughout the industry have focused on:

  • Focus on Purpose: Especially in difficult times, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and focus only on what needs to be done. We often forget the why of what we’re doing. Whether that’s connecting to your company’s Core Purpose, or why the team exists, or why you do what you do, reminding yourself of your purpose gives you the right perspective.
  • Build in Rest & Recovery: No one could run a 500 mile race without rest days. In our work, we need rest days too. Whether this is (actually) taking your vacation days, building time away from work over the weekends, or not obsessively checking emails before bed, your brain needs time away. It’s counterintuitive, but time away from work makes you more productive and efficient in the long run.
  • Focus on Others: In challenging times, it’s easy to focus on what we need. The best leaders maintain an outward focus: How are your colleagues doing? What do they need? How can you support others? What leaders find is that by focusing more of their attention on others, they worry less about themselves. 
  • Ask for Help: No one can do it all themselves these days. To sustain success for decades, leaders need a strong network and the courage to ask for help when it is needed. Whether that’s for advice, brainstorming new ideas, or for someone to carry the load when it gets to be too much, lasting success requires collaboration and help from others.

Nearly every leader we interact with is experiencing some level of fatigue right now. Leading in uncertain times takes more energy than leading in good times. We’ve certainly dealt with a series of unprecedented challenges over the past 18 months. While there are positive signs, we’re not out of the woods yet. Leaders need to focus on building resiliency so that they can sustain success over this marathon of marathons.

Ron Magnus
Ron Magnus

Ron Magnus, managing director of FMI’s Leadership and Organizational Development Practice, with Tim Tokarczyk, partner.