… Become aware of our stress levels. We have a finite amount of energy and hemorrhaging it to stress is wasteful and counterproductive. In fact, chronic worry is recognized as one of the most destructive of human behaviors. Identifying coping mechanisms to allow stress to be relieved determines how resilient leaders are.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vivian James Rigney.
Vivian James Rigney is President and CEO of Inside Us LLC, a global executive coaching consultancy operating throughout five continents, where he has helped implement leadership development initiatives for some of the world’s leading companies and their executive teams. He has also climbed the Seven Summits — the highest peak on all seven continents. On March 8th, his book ‘Naked At The Knife Edge’, was published — a book about his climbing of Everest and an epic story of fear, resilience and the power of vulnerability.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I left Ireland when I was 20 and have since lived in London, Munich, Johannesburg, Paris, Helsinki and now New York. The whole world was beckoning, and I wanted to travel and experience the world. I spent much of my 20s and 30s exploring, mountaineering, skiing, and general adventuring. About 15 years ago, I found my professional calling in executive coaching, leveraging my experience and learnings at work and in life to help leaders be their most effective and authentic.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I was sent to South Africa in my mid-twenties. It was a promotion and a big move for my company. I was driven, hungry and dedicated. Up to that point, hard work and commitment had always resulted in commendation and promotion, so I felt I had the model for success down. And I failed spectacularly. My job was to build a business with our dealers and partners. They took one look at this young Irish guy with all the ideas and optimism in the world, and they said, “Who is he and what’s his real intention?” After six months, I wasn’t being invited to meetings. I could feel the arctic winds blowing through the office. Half the people wouldn’t speak to me. I called my boss and admitted, “It’s not going well,” and he said, “I’ve heard.” I said, “So what should I do?” He said, “Vivian, I’m in Munich. I can’t hold your hand but I can tell you it’s about building relationships. You’ve got to get close to them.”
So, I pulled them into the conference room the following Monday. I said, “I’ve been here six months, and I’m failing. I’m letting myself down, and I’m letting my company down, and I’m letting you guys down.” I was shaking inside. I had no idea I was going to say that. I was trying so hard to be perfect. And I got it all wrong.
In that moment, the room changed. A third of them were nodding their heads like, “Now we’re talking.” A third of them went red — the ones that were being toughest on me, and the final third just looked at the carpet. They felt extremely awkward with my vulnerability. You could hear a pin drop in the room. It was like I stopped trying to be perfect. This huge weight lifted off my shoulders. Then I could just be myself. I asked them for their help and that re-set the whole relationship.
It was a release, and luckily, they played ball. I lived there four years. Business boomed, but I never forgot the scars of the first six months.
What I learned was the iceberg theory. What people may tell you in times of stress is only 20% of what they really feel. In reality, my partners were terrified of change. And extremely anxious about the new competition entering South Africa as the market opened up after the unraveling of apartheid.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
Companies hire us to work with their senior executives and leadership teams. These are people who are smart, driven, experienced and uniformly, high achievers. They all have significant leadership responsibilities. Our purpose is to help them become smarter in how they think, behave and lead. It’s about helping them become more aware of who they are, their innate strengths and how and where they burn their energy. It’s about showing them how to read and influence the room, but most importantly, how to read and manage themselves. At this level, it’s all about balance and optimizing their smarts and their energy. It’s about learning how to be intuitive, how to influence at scale, and doing this in an authentic way. The idea of authentic leadership is a big thing now. It’s about being real. But in order to be real you have to be aware of who you are.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is the capacity to answer adversity and setbacks, and effectively recover from them. The traits of resilient people include physical, emotional and mental balance. It’s also important to note that high performing leaders need to manage themselves first, before being able to impact others successfully.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is the ability to be curious, listen to intuition, and take action. If resilience is the end outcome, courage is the driver.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Nelson Mandela — I recall watching him give his first speech after being released from prison after 27 years of incarceration. I was expecting to hear from a man full of anger about how he and the country had been impacted by the atrocity of Apartheid. Instead, I heard a man who was speaking from a deep reservoir of strength, focus and resilience. He had used that time, all 9,855 days, to reflect and re-direct his energy towards rebuilding South Africa into a modern multi-ethnic democracy, where the rights of each individual trumped the rights of a privileged few. It ultimately led to the re-writing of the South African constitution, and the forming of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a global standard for healing, recovery and integration.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I recall my father’s business was close to failure and the impact it had on my parents. I have a vivid memory of him sitting at the kitchen table with my mother, surrounded by bills on one side and a paper journal on the other, carefully marking down every penny the family needed for the rest of the year. He calmly and resolutely removed all non-essential spending and sat with us afterwards, sharing that times were going to get tough. As a child, I felt the deep stress and burden they felt but, equally, his calmness around protecting us and sharing how we should value money and never waste it. This picture has never left me.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Become aware of our stress levels. We have a finite amount of energy and hemorrhaging it to stress is wasteful and counterproductive. In fact, chronic worry is recognized as one of the most destructive of human behaviors. Identifying coping mechanisms to allow stress to be relieved determines how resilient leaders are.
- Set up a clear and common purpose: It is essential to know what is important as well as getting us to be personally invested in this. In attempting to summit a peak like Mount Everest, for example, emotions often tell us to go forward at all costs, yet one’s overarching purpose is, in fact, to return home — alive.
- Challenge your inner voice. Under stress, one negative thought can create a negative recurring loop, serving no purpose other than increasing our stress levels and pulling us into a spiraling negative emotional state. We worry far too much about others and how they will judge us and the perceived costs of failure and its impact. When we listen to — and challenge — the dialogue in our heads, we see how disconnected from reality our own inner arguments often are.
- Accept yourself. Having an ego is human, yet when uncontrolled, it can imagine a reality which is deeply incongruent. Over our careers, we build up and nurture our own brand, but in times of stress — such as walking a knife-edge ridge at 8,000 meters in the Death Zone with a head full of negative beliefs — the ego is revealed as an imposter; it is useless, detrimental, and even life-threatening. And if the ego is burst, the question is, what’s left? Knowing who we are and letting go of our proverbial ‘baggage’ is a way to be true to ourselves by first accepting ourselves.
- Harness the power of intuition. Listening to one’s own judgment — based on thoroughly gathering all the data and understanding what each piece and its implication means is crucial. Intuition is perhaps our greatest superpower as humans. It allows us to listen to ourselves and combine our experiences and knowledge, together with data, to make a decision.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Vulnerability equals strength.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Richard Branson — he continues to inspire millions of people by being wildly curious, imaginative, driven and resilient.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!