A Focus on What Is Working

Excerpt from “Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry: A Leadership Journey through Hope, Despair, and Forgiveness” by Dr. Jeanie Cockell and Dr. Joan McArthur-Blair (Berrett-Koehler).

We have learned in our own leadership journey that resilience is a practice. We are not universally resilient; every situation requires its own kind of resilience. At times resilience deserts us. Resilience is not a destination we can tick off our list. So we practice. 

We believe that we are stronger in our leadership selves through this practice. We would love to be able to say that this practice fends off despair and never requires a state of forgiveness, but that is not true. What it does offer is a strength within our leadership selves that is available to us when we need it. The practice can soften the edges of despair and accelerate the journey to forgiveness. It cannot halt the march of hope, despair, and forgiveness through a leadership life. Rather, practicing builds our resilience and makes us stronger. This chapter is about the practice of resilience in the day-to-day of leadership. 

One appreciative inquiry-based practice is a focus on what’s working. In a problem-based world, it is very challenging to keep a leadership focus on what is working. We believe that focusing on what is working matters as a practice that builds appreciative resilience. 

Leaders are bombarded by problems every day. A focus on what is working pulls them out of that mind-set of problem—and deficit-based thinking to begin to see what is right and what is good inside a team or an organization.

Joan worked for a president who made this a practiced part of her leadership. She started every meeting with the question, “What do we have to celebrate?” As Joan and other leaders in the room shifted their mind-set to uplift the stories worth celebrating, the entire feeling in the room shifted. The thinking shifted from “We have problems” to “Yes, we have problems needing to be solved, but we also are doing some things right.” This particular leader had several catastrophic events occur within the organization in a short period of time. Joan always noted that she started every conversation during those very difficult times with some version of celebrating the skills of the people handling those events. 

Focusing on what is working inside a team or organization builds resilience for the individuals and the group by constantly reinforcing a drive to be excellent, not because of fear, but because their successes are celebrated. Celebrating what is working is like depositing resilience into an emotional bank account for later use. This bank account helps leaders deal with uncertainty, fear, and stress. In a crisis, a leader can tell others, verbally or through action, that their jobs, livelihood, and reputation are on the line, or they can share what is working well and uplift the drive of people to repair and rebuild. 

This practice is sometimes harder than the idea sounds. It takes a conscious and mindful effort to focus on what is working. It takes the practice of pausing and thinking through the situation from multiple perspectives and asking powerful questions. This practice is easier in hopeful times, and we suggest that these are the times to begin the practice. If leaders practice a focus on what is working in hopeful times, they will find it much easier to do when a crisis arises. It is difficult to focus on what is working in times of despair, yet it is possible if one has practiced in times of hope. As leaders move through the element or state of despair, it is very difficult not to assign blame, seek justice, dole out retribution, or withdraw. In forgiveness, one must hold what is working close to one’s leadership heart, because a focus on what is working and forgiveness are linked together. Without leaders focusing on what is working or on what is possible, forgiveness cannot happen. Focusing on what is working well is a practice that trains leaders to seek out the appreciative stance and, in doing so, discover what can be built on and taken into the future.

We love the word practice and its core definition of doing something again and again to become better at it. Practicing resilience is like this. As leaders, we return again and again to the practice field to refine and hone those things we know can make a difference in resilience. Practice is not about arriving at a destination. It is about advancing the practice, about becoming ever more resilient within the recognition that no leader can be impervious to the onslaught of a leadership life.

Excerpt from “Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry: A Leadership Journey through Hope, Despair, and Forgiveness” by Dr. Jeanie Cockell and Dr. Joan McArthur-Blair (Berrett-Koehler).

Dr. Jeanie Cockell and Dr. Joan McArthur-Blair are co-presidents of Cockell McArthur-Blair Consulting and co-authors of “Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry,” published by Berrett-Koehler. Dr. Cockell is a dynamic facilitator known for her ability to get diverse groups to work collaboratively together. For 20 years, she has served as an educational and organizational consultant helping people, organizations, and communities build positive futures and respond effectively to change. Dr. McArthur-Blair is an inspirational writer, speaker, and facilitator. She specializes in the use of Appreciative Inquiry to foster leadership, strategic planning, and innovative strategies for organizational development.


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