The Resilient Leader: Deconstructing Self-Talk to Foster Optimism in You and Your Team

During these tough times, optimism can be challenging. But, as leaders, we know our emotions are contagious to our teams and our teams’ emotions are contagious to our business more broadly. Thus, building resilience within ourselves and our teams is critical.

Interestingly, however, many people define “resilience” incorrectly. They think of resilience as muscling through, toughening up, and grinding it out. But research reveals resilience is actually about incorporating consistent, almost ritualistic patterns of thinking and acting. In turn, these patterns allow leaders and teams to stay in a creative space without plunging below the line to reactivity. Today, we’ll unpack some of the patterns of thinking that can lead to resilience by relying on Martin Seligman’s work on “explanatory style.”

I discovered Seligman’s work when my wife was getting her master’s in counseling. I scored “marginally pessimistic” on an optimism test she gave me, and I realized I had some work to do. My wife gave me a copy of Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism. Needless to say, the book has lost none of its relevance. Seligman’s research focuses on a person’s “explanatory style,” which is a term used to describe how someone talks to themselves when faced with adversity. Explanatory style can be broken down across three dimensions:

1. Permanence. Leaders who are optimistic and more resilient see bad situations or events as temporary rather than permanent. For example, they say to themselves, “I didn’t adequately prepare for that presentation” as opposed to “I am always a horrible presenter” or “I never present well.” For the optimist, adversity is temporary and confined in time. For the pessimist, adversity stretches back into the past and/or forward into the future. A fun exercise for observing the concept of permanence is to watch post-game sports interviews with players. How does the player characterize the loss? Did they have a lackluster performance that day? Or is the adversity a permanent characteristic of the team or their season?

2. Pervasiveness. Similar to permanence, pervasiveness describes how an individual confines adversity in space. How broadly does the adverse event permeate? Using the example above, an optimist would confine the adversity to the bad presentation. But a pessimist allows for contagious negativity to spread beyond the adverse incident to other areas. Suddenly, the bad presentation means the person is “not any good at sales” or “not a good fit at this company.”

3. Personalization. Finally, personalization describes how an individual personally characterizes adversity. Personalization doesn’t mean blaming others. A leader can take appropriate ownership of the problem without personalizing the adversity. To use the presentation example again, an optimist confines the adversity to his or her presentation: “My presentation wasn’t very good because I didn’t adequately prepare beforehand.” The optimist owns the lack of preparation but doesn’t internalize the adversity as a deeper problem. Conversely, the pessimist turns the adversity into a deeper reflection of his or her personality traits and internal characteristics more broadly: “I am horrible presenter, I stink at public speaking, and I’m habitually unprepared.”

Often, negative and pessimistic self-talk works across all three dimensions. Still, breaking down the components can sometimes help achieve the mindfulness and clarity to correct negative self-talk. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, reactive, or weary, be more aware of your explanatory style and how you’re speaking to yourself.

As Buddha wisely once said: “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded. But once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or your mother.”

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