As a former basketball player and team captain, I’ve always enjoyed watching and learning from the game’s top players – especially those whose careers also evidence other special qualities. And it’s hard to name many greater than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – a three-time national champion at UCLA, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and inventor of the un-guardable “skyhook” shot that ruined many a night for his opponents.
Sports Illustrated recently published an article on what the 68-year-old Hall of Famer is up to now, more than 25 years after he retired from the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s an inspiring story. Kareem always saw himself as much more than an athlete – and he’s proven it through his impressive body of work as an author, journalist and philanthropist, with a special passion for exploring the intersection of religion, politics and history.
Throughout Kareem’s evolution, there’s at least one trait that appears to have remained constant on his journey from superstar athlete to modern day intellectual. It’s a quality that’s hard to measure, and, when things are going well, it’s sometimes hard to tell who really has it. But every successful leader I’ve ever known or studied possesses it in spades: resilience. (Think Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela or Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi).
Beneath the glamorous veneer of Kareem’s very public life has run a steady stream of major challenges that could have defeated him far more easily than another basketball team. The tensions of growing up as a black man in 1960s Harlem. Chronic migraines. Impossible expectations from fans and reporters. A fire that destroyed his home. Bad investments. A battle with leukemia.
Through it all, though, he’s emerged more accomplished, more adventurous and more committed to the causes that matter most to him – a 7’2” giant who truly is larger than life.
Most of us won’t end up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, let alone win the Nobel Peace Prize or run a country. But we can embrace the inevitable challenges in our own lives and draw strength and wisdom from them, if we’re committed to cultivating resilience.
As the Center for Creative Leadership’s short book Building Resiliency: How to Thrive in Times of Change explains, “Being resilient isn’t the same as being tough, even though dogged determination – especially the determination to learn from mistakes and successes – plays a key role. A resilient person gets that way by broadening his or her perspective, by being open to change, and by being willing to learn.” We can develop and sustain resilience if we focus on revitalizing ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally on a frequent basis. Here are three ways to get started:
1) Stretch your mind. Skills and behaviors we’ve already mastered might make us feel good about ourselves. But, as our friend Marshall Goldsmith likes to say, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” We’re all naturally oriented toward growth from the moment we’re born, and we need new challenges and the new knowledge that comes from taking them on. Resilient leaders continually ask questions that help them gain multiple perspectives and reframe challenges. The world is changing so quickly we don’t really have a choice. How can we measure success? At the end of every day, write down one thing you learned. Better yet, make it two or three.
2) Stretch your body. Kareem attributes his incredible athletic longevity – he was still playing pro ball at age 42 – to yoga. CCL faculty member Nick Petrie, who has studied resilience for years, recommends meditation as one of the very best ways to build resilience. Our research also shows a strong correlation between physical fitness and effectiveness as a leader. So pick a few favorite activities, whether it’s swimming, running, biking, tennis, or something else that keeps your mind and body sharp, and make them part of your regular schedule.
3) Reflect, don’t ruminate. In his white paper Wake Up!: The Surprising Truth about What Drives Stress and How Leaders Build Resilience, Nick Petrie notes the crucial difference between reflection and rumination. We absolutely must pause to take stock. All too often, though, we spend that time looking back on the past with regret or toward the future with fear. That’s rumination. Resilient leaders need to maintain their optimism even more strongly in times of adversity. So it’s much healthier to review the past with an eye for what we did well and what we might do better next time and to make plans for the future that inspire us based on what we’ve learned from the past. That’s reflection, and it will help you develop a resilient mindset and attitude.
John Wooden, Kareem’s legendary coach at UCLA, liked to say, “If I am through learning, I am through.” Fifty years later, his advice is still paying off for his star pupil, who’s an expert at bouncing back from hardships. We can benefit, too – for the same qualities that make us resilient are also the traits that enrich our lives.
This column is one of several that CCL President and CEO John Ryan has written on leadership as a Linkedin Influencer. Click to view all his columns and sign up to receive future posts.