“Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.”

— Wilma Rudolph

This quote from Wilma Rudolph is a study in resilience. Wilma was born prematurely and spent most of her early childhood in bed, suffering from numerous ailments including double pneumonia, scarlet fever, and then the crippling effects of polio, which caused her to lose the use of her deformed left foot and leg at the age of 6. What’s more, she was a member of a large, poor black family that didn’t have access to the intensive health treatment she needed because of both limited resources and segregation.

Doctors told Wilma she would not regain the use of her leg. However, Wilma, her mother and the whole family decided they would prove the doctors wrong, and they began their own regimen of rehabilitation, exercise and loving support. By the age of 8 Wilma was able to walk well using a leg brace, and began playing basketball with her brothers every day, gradually weaning herself from the leg brace and then from a high-topped shoe she used to support her foot.

The rest is history. In 1959, Wilma Rudolph qualified for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome by setting a world record in the 200 meter. At the Olympics that next year she won two gold medals—one for the 100 meter and one for the 200 meter. Then she sprained her ankle, but she ignored the pain and helped her team to win another gold medal for the 400-meter relay, becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals in the Olympic Games. At the age of 20, the little girl who would never use her leg again had earned the title of “Fastest Woman in the World.”

How do you bounce back from setbacks? How well do you handle wrenching change or failure? How resilient are you?

Resilience is generally considered the ability to recover from or resist being affected by a shock, insult or disturbance. In psychology it often describes the capacity of people to cope positively with extreme stress and catastrophe. Resilience is also described as being able to resist future negative events.

The answer to “How resilient are you?” might not have a simple answer, because how resilient you are can depend largely on you. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), resilience is not a natural tendency of some, but it can be learned and developed by anyone.

The APA states that the following are some of the factors that can help you develop resilience:

  • Having supportive and caring relationships both inside and outside of your family
  • Being able to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out
  • Having a positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities
  • Possessing strong communication and problem-solving skills
  • Being able to manage strong feelings and impulses

These are also characteristics found in good leaders.

Everyday Resilience

Resilience is not only important in major events, but in minor ones also.

Imagine you walk past an office and hear one of your subordinates say to another, “I can’t believe what that jerk just told me to do,” knowing that you are the “jerk” in question, and then both see you walk by, knowing that you heard and understood the comment.

How do you manage your strong feelings and impulses after such an obvious insult? How does your confidence and view of yourself temper or inflame the insult? How will you communicate with these people and solve the problem that has been created? Or should you?

This is a situation in which resilience can make you shine, if you have what it takes. So what do you do? How about just forgetting it ever happened? That is an option, but it is not likely a good one, because nothing will be resolved and there is the good possibility that word will get around about it.

Having resilience doesn’t mean that you just let everything roll off your back, shrug it off and move on, or that you won’t experience stress, hurt feelings and difficult times. Health care is a serious business with a great amount of human interaction, and difficult, stressful situations are the rule rather than the exception in the lives of many caregivers and healthcare leaders.

One of the strategies for resilience is taking decisive action. It is also the mark of a leader. (See the PDF version for the sidebar “Ten Ways to Build Resilience.”)

People who shy away from problems or ignore them, hoping they will go away, are not true leaders. There are several ways to deal with this situation, and one way is to be direct. You might approach the person calmly in the other’s presence and simply say: “Would you like to speak with me about this? I’d be happy to talk with you about your objections to it. Could you come by my office in a few minutes? Thanks.”

Through this approach, you have shown resilience, and you have defused a potential time bomb, that is, as long as you continue your calm demeanor and listening skills a few minutes later in your office.

Resilience and the Future

A self-aware, confident leader with a strong support network, good communication skills and a short reign on his or her emotions will also tend to not shrink from calculated risks and change. People with these resilient traits can make great things happen in an organization. This might be considered “resilience in reverse,” but it is still resilience.

Great people are marked by their ability to take a deep breath and realize that some things must be risked for a better future. This trait gives them the opportunity to “think bigger,” having the conviction that it is more important to try and fail at something monumental, than to never try it. As Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

This is where the ability to make plans and carry them out comes in. Leaders think about their intentions and the impact they are going to have as they plan, and they exhibit some of the courage their resilience gives them. This is one of the traits that creates avid followers.

Five years ago, the CEO and top management of Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Mich., took on this mission: “To be the nation’s highest quality and most successful healthcare enterprise by 2010.” Will they make it? Only time will tell. I will tell you this: when Spectrum Health leaders decide, for example, to improve core clinical measures in surgical infection prevention or women’s health or whatever else they choose to tackle, their goal is not to be better than the health system across town. Instead, they look at the numbers for the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and then they strive to be better than these national benchmarks.

That’s because their goal is to be the highest quality and most successful healthcare enterprise in the nation—even at the possible cost of failure. So far, they are doing a very good job in achieving these goals in many clinical and administrative areas, while maintaining a healthy bottom line.

Improving clinical quality takes tough choices and requires change. All of these things take people out of their comfort zones, and some of the less resilient who work for you may not last through the changes. But quality must improve. In this business, you as a leader can’t call a monthly meeting and just say, for example, “Oh well, we had 30 readmissions last month due to what seem to be avoidable medical errors, but it’s OK—next month we’re all going to pull together and bring that number down.” It’s not OK at all, especially when a few of those readmissions might not have left the hospital alive. You as a leader may not be able to bounce back from a failure like this. You must have a plan.

That’s why you have to look at the risk and be resilient in order to plan for the future. There will be conflict, and there will be failures, and some of them may be perceived as your failures, but they must be risked, and your people will look to you to be resilient.

Remember, you will fail sometimes despite all your best laid plans. Your success will be measured by how well you plan for failure big and small, and how well you bounce back and move forward when it happens.

I’d like to end with this quote from American writer and poet James Russell Lowell:

“Mishaps are like knives that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or the handle.”