Resilience is a synonym for adaptation

Author: Máté Botos

Mate Botos Mcc 1200 Web
Máté Botos speaks to talented young students at Mathias Corvinus Collegium, Budapest, March 26, 2023. Courtesy of Mathias Corvinus Collegium, Photo: Tamás Gyurkovits (MCC).

Máté Botos is associate professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest, Hungary. He was a visiting scholar at the Nanovic Institute for European Studies in 2019-20 and participated in the Advanced Leadership Program, an initiative of the Catholic Universities Partnership, in Rome in June 2022. 

In my dictionary, the word “resilience” has two different meanings: the first is a synonym of perseverance, but the other is somehow similar to flexibility. The first one describes an attitude of somebody standing up for his or her rights, without compromises. On the other hand, the second one expresses an ability of choosing the right strategy to achieve our goal. In the first case, we have something solid, unchanging, and permanent before our eyes, but in the second, that which we imagine is variable, changing, and flexible. How then is it possible to use a word to describe two seemingly opposing attitudes? The keyword is: adaptation.

When modeling structures, we always try to set up a system that works regardless of conditions, actors, and time. These, however, are fairly important determinants because the real person can differ greatly from the average worker. Imagine an individual who has four children and a wife who is on sick leave due to endometriosis. He suffers from hypertension and has to travel 90 minutes each day to get home after work. He speaks a bit of German and likes French movies, has a 15-year-old car, an old cat, and a basset hound. He likes drawing and his dream is to see his elder son become a doctor. In theory, everything seems straightforward but in practice, we must admit that if a manager acknowledges only the personal skills (and qualities) of their team member, without considering the real person, this is a problem. 

A resilient leader is ready to distinguish the form from the implementation. They know that the theoretical goal is to achieve our plan to reach B from A, but they also consider whether they have the staff available to realize it. They adapt their strategy to the possibilities. They do not want to fire their colleagues when their job performance is poor. Instead, they wish to reach goals with them, like a good trainer. For this leader, a result without the intensive participation of the partners is not a goal but a utilitarian effort that has no regard for human beings.

Leading not driving

This is a key point: what is the main goal of our activity? Hit the top with or without our colleagues and partners, or climb together as high as we can? In the latter case, we appreciate the human condition more than the material one, which conforms to the traditions of catholic social teaching. However, that does not mean giving up on or losing sight of the main goal of our activity! A resilient leader is realistic enough to become pragmatic when necessary. He is targeting the goal and provides direction but never becomes a heartless pilot. The leader is motivated by bringing a community together, not furthering an individual career. Among other things, resilience thus describes a brilliant ability to lead. In other words, resilience means leading, not driving.

When describing mayor Kevin H. White’s leadership of the city of Boston, Massachusetts, the German political scientist Tilo Schabert said in his book Boston Politics: The Creativity of Power (Walter de Gruyter, 1989) that while White was the driving force behind the city’s leadership, it is not enough to just have a good personality, to be always inventing new things, working hard, and open to new ideas. Schabert said that a good leader must also be able to motivate their staff. They must be able to formulate goals in a way that enjoys the support of colleagues and that has broad legitimacy. A good leader must also be able to find ways to achieve these goals in changing circumstances. Co-workers must not give up hope that the goals they have set can be achieved, and the role of the manager-leader is crucial in this.

A resilient leader can point toward positive solutions. They don’t necessarily have to solve the problems, but they do have to point the way. To do this, they must be able to select the right people for the job: not people who just want to carry out orders, but those who are creative in finding solutions. A flexible leader not only assigns tasks and monitors their execution, but also takes ownership of them. Colleagues who cooperate with that leader thus feel both the appreciation of their work and the importance of the task. Only in this way can a truly good leader earn the respect and trust of their colleagues.

If they can do this, that leader will be able to maintain the positive mindset that is required, whether in the corporate sphere or in management. When a manager is able to make their staff happy to go to work every morning, then they give their staff more motivation than can be derived from any other material tool. Their staff will experience a flow in the form of an inner force. This flow can not be forced nor expected by others (certainly not by the individual's managers), nor can it be the result of any material motivation. It must come from the heart. And yet, when employees feel that they are part of something good and noble, they are successful in giving meaning to their work, and therefore to their lives.

When a believer is appointed to a leadership position, they must also be aware that their co-workers are also brothers and sisters in Christ, who do not live to work but who work to live. The leader is also aware that work is not merely an end in itself but is a means to salvation. Work done humbly but joyfully can help humans achieve their eternal goals - and this is what the Catholic leader must keep in mind above all else.