As part of a leadership development programme I designed for one of our clients I was asked to consider the attributes and competencies that leaders need during difficult and challenging times – times of austerity! While thinking about this I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers: The Story of Success”. I was particularly struck by his chapter about the workers in rice paddies in China who were driven by hard work to maximise the production of rice from their patch of land. They worked hard, spending long hours tending their piece of land, dealing with any problems with irrigation, weather or pests that may prevent the best rice output. Gladwell suggested that this hard work and persistence was linked to inbred resilience in their character and culture. He further proposed that this resilience was why graduates from China are generally perceived as better at solving maths problems than other cultures, even though there is no evidence that Chinese graduates are inherently more intelligent than graduates from other cultures. He said that from an early age when Chinese students are presented with maths problems they persist until the first problem is solved (no turning to the back pages for an answer there) and that then makes the next problem a bit easier, and so on – in other words it is more to do with persistence and hard work that increases their self-belief.
I also recalled reading about Dyson and his 5,126 failures (at least that is how it was presented by him) before his 5,127th attempt, which turned into the Dyson vacuum cleaner. What was striking about Dyson was that he had persisted and worked through 5,126 versions before he was successful – once again persistence and hard work coupled with self-belief had carried him past the point where you think that anyone with any sense would just have given up and gone home. Indeed successful inventors and entrepreneurs usually point out that they had failed, sometimes quite a few times, before they succeeded. There is a view amongst some people in business that to experience failure and press on until successful is more admirable and teaches you more than instant success in business.
So what does this teach us? The point is this. Resilience based on persistence and hard work has become a more valued attribute in recent years and to survive and thrive in difficult economic times organisations need employees who are resilient. To galvanise these qualities, leaders need to do two key things: first, to lead by example, demonstrating resilience, and second, to recruit and retain employees who can also demonstrate a high degree of resilience. Although skills, experience and knowledge required to do the job are important, resilience is the characteristic that makes the difference when times are tough.