September 2012

Do you know any rubber-band people?

Chances are you do. They’re the people who, no matter what happens to them, always seem to bounce back. They may experience an illness, a family tragedy, or a run of bad luck, but it never seems to keep them down. Life can stretch them to their breaking point, but – like a rubber band – they always find a way back to their original shape.

Would you like to know their secret?


Resilience is the ability of an object to return to form after it’s been bent, stretched or compressed. Think about the stress balls you see on some office desks; no matter how hard you squeeze those things, they always return to their original shape. They have resilience.

People can have resilience too. In fact, I’ve been in leadership a long time, and of all the traits I’ve learned as a leader, perhaps none has been as useful to me as resilience. The ability to bounce back from a setback often makes the difference between losing and winning. As the saying goes, you only lose if you quit!

According to the American Psychology Association, there are several key factors in resilience. The first is healthy relationships – having a community of people who love and support you is an important key to bouncing back from disappointment. This, above all, has the most impact on a person’s level of resilience; the larger the network of support and care, the more able a person is to be resilient.

There are other factors as well. The ability to create and execute realistic plans for the future helps minimize the sense of being stuck in our pain. And on those days when you’re tempted to believe you are worthless, the ability to have a positive view of yourself as well as a healthy self-confidence can keep you from falling further into depression. It’s often helpful – and not at all shameful – to talk through problems with a credible counselor. And learning to manage those times when our emotions threaten to overwhelm us plays a huge role in our ability to heal.

But resilience isn’t easy to learn; first of all, the learning process requires something difficult to happen to you. You might lose a business deal. You may develop a devastating illness. You may lose a loved one or a close friend. Second, you have to choose to overcome the setback. That requires a level of personal commitment and discipline. You have to get up every day, face your setback, and determine to not let it beat you.

It’s not an overnight process. In fact, it can take quite a bit of time living on the razor’s edge. But it can be done.

So how do you develop resilience?

Here are four ways:

Fail Forward

There is no setback so severe that you cannot recover in some way, but it takes a certain mindset to make that recovery possible. I speak often of failing forward—learning from mistakes in order to become better. That same mindset is critical for resilience. You cannot let your setbacks defeat you; you have to look to them for lessons, along with insights into yourself and your circumstances. It’s hard – especially when the setback is something you didn’t cause – but you can find wisdom in even the most difficult circumstances.

Commit to Growth

This is a natural outcome of choosing to fail forward. When you start looking for lessons, you set yourself on a path for personal growth. As you learn about yourself in your struggles, you also learn about the people around you. You begin to reflect on what you want from life, and what it would cost to get you there. The best leaders already have a commitment to personal growth, but it’s easy to lose that drive when life disappoints you. You have to commit again to growing each day – and then focus on getting better one day at a time.

Recognize the Value of Adding Value

I have long quoted Zig Ziglar, who said, “If you’ll help others get what they want, they’ll help you get what you want.” Usually when I talk about adding value, I’m inviting people to invest in others, to give in order to help others succeed. But I don’t often talk about the second part of Zig’s statement. There are times in your life when what you need most is for others to add value to you. When you experience a difficult setback, those you’ve invested in will want to return the favor. Let them. Let the value you’ve given to others return to you and help you through your dark hours. You’ll emerge stronger – and more committed to adding value to others in the future.

Find Strength Beyond Yourself

I’m going to address an area that may not be of interest to some readers. If that’s true of you, you can still take away a lot of value from my previous points, and I hope you do. But for me, when things get to their most difficult, there is only one place for me to turn—and that’s to God. Sometimes life is filled with challenges that stretch us so far that we fear we may never snap back. You may find yourself struggling to make sense of your emotions, your thoughts, your very place in this world. Times like these require more than human strength. In the dark moments, I encourage you, bring your pain to God. He knows not only how to comfort you, but to bring you through the pain and into a new and better life. And if you reach out to Him, He will bring you through.


Life has no shortage of difficulties, but the good news is that no matter how difficult things may get, you can bounce back. That’s the beauty of resilience. No matter how many setbacks you’ve faced in your life, it’s never too late to cultivate resilience. You too can grow to become a “rubber-band person,” someone who bounces back from setbacks every time.

Everything worthwhile is uphill. I’ve been saying this for a while now, but the more I think about it, the more I know it’s true. Whether you’re talking about personal growth, personal health, business or some other aspect of life, nothing of value is easy. The precious things in life require something in exchange.

It reminds me of a quote from missionary Jim Elliott: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Leaders are well aware of the need to sacrifice. The decisions leaders face almost always include some measure of giving up something in order to gain something; for leaders, life is always a set of scales that need balancing. One of the easiest places to see this principle at work is parenting. Whether it’s a good night’s sleep, a weekend getaway, or your dream car, as a parent you understand that sacrifices must be made for your children.

But it’s not just parents who have to make sacrifices. As leaders in businesses and organizations, we are called to make tough choices on behalf of our people. Sometimes the sacrifices are obvious and simple. You let go of a little money to gain a better product. You promote a fantastic worker because they’ll make an even better leader. You release a great employee to go and chase their dream.

Sometimes the sacrifices are harder and more draining. You have to cut the budget in order to keep the company afloat. You have to admit your organization made a mistake in production. Or, even harder, you have to admit that you made a bad choice as a leader and cost the company millions.

Regardless of the type of sacrifice, every leader must be willing to make sacrifices, because leaders are expected to pay the prices others won’t pay. That’s what makes you the leader! But it’s not just about making the hard decisions—good leaders make the hard decisions when they need to be made. Being able to face the moment of decision and choose the hard path of sacrifice in that moment defines the greatest leaders in history. 

I challenge you, in your growth as a leader, to be willing to face – and even embrace – sacrifice when it is called for, to help your people and organization thrive. I’ve often said that we have to “give up to go up.” I believe that no matter how challenging the sacrifice, you will end up understanding that it was worth it to take your leadership to the next level.

I have a second challenge for you: In your life, you can probably think of several people who made the right sacrifices at the appropriate times to help you become the person you are today: parents, teachers, friends, family. I encourage you to take time this week to thank those people for the sacrifices they made on your behalf. I believe that so much of our success in life comes from standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. The people who made important tradeoffs contributed to who you are. Thank them today.

Finally, I have one more challenge, and it is the main reason why I chose today to write about sacrifice. This weekend, America will celebrate Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember the men and women who gave their lives while serving in our armed forces. It is a day that dates as far back as 1866, when the citizens of Waterloo, New York, gathered together to honor their sons and daughters who had died in the Civil War. The US holiday became official in 1966, and for the last fifty years this weekend has been part of our national mindset.

I am grateful for all of the men and women who gave their lives in service to our country. As a leader, I find their willingness to give themselves to the cause of freedom inspirational, and I agree with President Lincoln, who said it best: “From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Sacrifice is at the heart of leadership, and the men and women we will honor on Memorial Day were leaders in the best sense. Whether they sacrificed on the field of battle or in some other way, who we are as a nation is the result of their willingness to give when it was needed. So it is my privilege to honor those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. To their families, I give my thanks—and I encourage you to do the same.

Have you ever felt like you were out of place? That where you are, isn’t where you’re supposed to be?

I was talking with someone the other day, and he made a statement that really connected with me. He’s got a successful and fulfilling career. But that day he confessed that lately he’d had the sense that something was missing. He said to me, “I just feel like there’s something more for me to do. Not exactly that I’m meant for more, but like I’ve got more to give.” Then he asked, “How do I know when it’s time for me to move on?”

That’s such an important question. Looking back over my four decades of leadership, I can see that my sense of having more to give played a key role in many of my career choices. Every career transition was triggered by a desire to give more. And the new position that followed definitely offered the opportunity to grow and expand my impact.

But – and this is a big but – not every impulse to give more, or do more, or be more, was followed by a career transition. Many times, what followed instead was a passion for increased impact where I already was. How did I know when to stay, and when to move on?

I believe that one question can be answered by asking yourself a few others. Questions that force you to look inward. After all, if what you’re feeling is that you don’t fit your current role, then the first step is to examine yourself, not the role. That’s what I told my friend. And if you’re in a similar situation, that’s what I want to share with you. Here are the four questions I encouraged my friend to answer:

1. Am I Currently Exceeding Expectations?

This may seem like a strange question to start with, but it’s actually the most crucial. Before you start looking for other places to give more, make sure you’re more than meeting the standard where you’re at! If you are already consistently exceeding expectations as an employee and/or leader, then you might need to look for other opportunities to contribute. But that leads to the next question:

2. Am I Giving 100% OF MY Effort?

You’re probably thinking, John, if I’m exceeding expectations, then I’m definitely giving 100% effort! You might think so, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s possible to give less than our best and still exceed the expectations placed on us by our positions.

Resist the coaster’s mentality—that’s when you settle for less than your best simply because it’s better than what’s expected! If you’re not giving your 100% to where you are, then chances are that you would transfer that same attitude to a new position. Find a way to re-engage with your position and challenge yourself to be completely focused on giving your best work.

3. Am I Seeing and Seizing Growth Opportunities?

You may not realize it, but growth opportunities exist all around you. It’s easy to see your current discontentment as a sign that you need to leave. But in reality, it might be a sign that you need to level up. Don’t let your restlessness blind you to the opportunities to grow that may be present right where you are. Search hard for them, and don’t move on until you’re certain that you’ve made the most of every opportunity.

4. Am I Currently Mentoring Others?

As I wrote in a recent blog post, whenever you leave a position, you take your influence, vision and momentum with you—unless you’ve spent time developing someone to take your place. The mentoring question is the last question to ask, because doing so always leaves things better than they were when you arrived. Plus, if you’re not giving to the people who are already in your life, then you’re not prepared to give to those you haven’t met!

The theme for all four of these questions is to be all that you can be where you are. Grow and give until you’ve filled the space that you’re in. When you know you’ve done that, it might be time to move on. But that brings up the number one question that I always ask myself, which comes out of my personal faith. It is, for me, the most important question I ask before making any kind of transition or change. And that question is, Is this what God would have me do? For me, everything I do is rooted in my relationship with God. So it’s only natural that I seek His guidance—after all, He understands what’s best for me even better than I do!

No matter where you are now, if you’re committed to growth, you will eventually feel like you have more to give than your current situation allows. And the good news is, there are always places for people who are pushing the limits of their potential. But before you make any big decisions, ask yourself these four questions. They might reveal more for you to do where you are. You’ll never regret taking stock before you take flight—no matter which direction you choose to soar.