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A Boy Named Sue: Building leadership resilience through challenging assignments

February 12, 2016

And he said: "Son, this world is rough

And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough

And I knew I wouldn't be there to help ya along.

So I give ya that name and I said goodbye

I knew you'd have to get tough or die

And it's the name that helped to make you strong."

 

While driving to Los Angeles from Palm Springs one morning last week I began listening to a favorite singer, Johnny Cash, as a way to lower my stress from the traffic. As I reflected on the lyrics of A Boy Named Sue, it dawned on me that Cash was indirectly describing a means for building resilience by being subjected to real-life challenges using a sink-or-swim approach. The challenge approach can be a powerful way to strengthen resilience in emerging leaders if it balances support and challenge.  

 

Nearly twenty years ago, researchers began identifying various theories on how children could build resilience to navigate adversity. One model known as the protective factors model suggests that one way to ensure people are resilient is by developing abilities that they can draw on when faced with tough times such as optimism or hardiness. Another approach is called the challenge model. The challenge model assumes that people can increase their resilience when gradually exposed to challenges over time. By successfully engaging these challenges, they inoculate themselves against future adversity, much like lifting increasingly heavy weights builds muscle. The key to building resilience using this approach is making sure the challenge one experiences is at the right level to avoid becoming overwhelmed or derailing.

 

So how can the challenge model of building resilience be implemented in organizations interested in building strong leaders? Stretch assignments for high-potential leaders are an ideal way to build resilience when they balance support with a challenge. This development strategy could take different forms such as job rotations or leadership projects integrated into a leadership development curriculum. 

 

To ensure that this leadership development approach is effective, consider the following factors:

 

  • Assess a leader’s current abilities to be able to chose the appropriate level of challenge they need to stretch.

  • Identify a stretch assignment that will match a leader’s current abilities and learning goals.

  • Include mentoring and coaching support to ensure the project does not overwhelm the participant and possibly have the opposite effect on their career trajectory.

  • Engage the participant periodically throughout the assignment to reflect on their learning as a way to build and deepen their awareness of their internal resiliency resources.

  • Provide feedback throughout the assignment to help increase their confidence and self-awareness of their behavior when facing adverse situations. 

  • Establish peer support opportunities with other leaders are also taking part of a stretch assignment to build a network that will play an instrumental role when they face future challenges.

Resilience is a skill that emerging leaders can develop by embracing the challenge model. While Johnny Cash became more resilient as a result of sink-or-swim challenge approach, stretch assignments are more effective when they provide the right balance of challenge and support.

 

(c) 2016 Kevin Nourse, PhD

 

 

 

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