Resilient leadership – home grown in Cumbria


I’m constantly researching personality traits, evaluating personality profiles, focusing on the core attributes required for individuals and teams to thrive in business.  Leadership is always on my agenda.  Leadership theory is now so often centered around being resilient, as a core skill and requirement.  In a recent blog post on my website (Leadership and the Dark Side Personality) I discussed the concept of Active Coping, a concept defined by Lesley Pratch, a business psychologist in the US.  Active coping is the readiness, willingness, and ability to adapt resourcefully and effectively to novel and changing conditions.  Think of it as a constant state of being “open for business” that springs from a healthy personality structure (Pratch, 2014).  Pratch considers active coping to be the most important variable when predicting effective leadership.

Leadership in small businesses

Leadership is so often defined in a corporate world where there is a constant strive to capture the essence of good leadership.  It is less often discussed when we are thinking about small, independent businesses, which clearly have a fundamental requirement for effective leadership but perhaps not the budgets to fund leadership development programs?  Cumbria has a larger than average proportion of small businesses, many of these independent and family run businesses, lots of these classed as micro-businesses.  Recent events in the county have got me thinking about leadership in a different light, out of the corporate arena, in the world of the independent businesses where I’ve seen some of the most outstanding examples of active coping.  I’m talking here about the café owners, farmers, hoteliers and small independent retailers.  But whilst I’m not necessarily talking here about corporate employees, I’ve no intention to discount them either from this discussion or suggest they don’t possess the same attributes.

Cumbria has been affected with a number of incidents over the past 15 years which have dramatically changed businesses in the area.  From February 2001 through to September 2001 hundreds of farms throughout Cumbria were struck with foot and mouth disease.  This had a devastating effect on many rural businesses, who depended on visitors for their income – tourism in the area was discouraged and in some places forbidden in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.  The floods, now becoming too many occasions to mention – Carlisle in 2005, Cockermouth in 2009, most of the county was affected in some way in 2015, resulting in bridge and road closures, premises out of action, residents out of their homes, all having a huge effect on trading.

Resilience, active coping and Cumbrian grit

Yet, I was literally astounded by the comeback of the businesses affected by floods in November 2015.  The mental toughness and resilience demonstrated by small business owners was impressive to say the least.  It’s true – they’d been there before and many businesses had action plans, but the sheer grit and determination to tell the rest of the world that Cumbria was open for business and to keep trading was something as a county we should be so proud of.  And the majority of these were not businesses who could call on offices elsewhere in the UK for assistance or extra resources.

Below is a list of variables that Pratch associates with her concept of active coping, underpinning effective leadership:

·         Awareness – active copers are able to see reality, their own needs, capabilities and limitations;

·         Courage – active copers are brave; they are not be intimidated by challenges;

·         Resiliency, toughness and the ability to learn from experience – active copers regroup and recover from setbacks;

·         Energy, fortitude and the willingness to persevere – active copers continue forwards under the most trying circumstances;

·         Resourcefulness – active copers invent solutions to problems with their current resources, or developing new resources;

·         Decisiveness – active copers have the fortitude to handle conflicts amongst competing goals;

·         Executing a plan – active copers have plans: to anticipate, strategize and weigh the risks of potential actions.  Then they act.

Yet, what I’m reading is a list of variables that I would associate with so many of the small Cumbrian businesses owners who are still standing after a fairly eventful winter in our county.

I’m talking about innovative leaders who have taken chances.  Many of these business owners are now using social media to their advantage and the storm (pun fully intended) whipped up on twitter following the aftermath of the November 2015 floods was impressive to see.  #spiritofcumbria, #cumbriaisopen, #notjustlakes are all campaigns developed out of a selflessness, borne out by a desire to do what is for the greater good for the whole county.  The recognition of the need to protect Cumbria and develop its economy is so embedded in the minds of businesses in the area that small business owners are thinking and acting strategically on behalf of the county.  The following for these campaigns is huge.  You literally couldn’t teach it.

Putting this in the context of active coping – there is nothing passive about these businesses.  They have bounced back in the face of adversity with courage, energy and amazing innovation and resourcefulness.  Many learnt from experience, particularly in the case of the floods and businesses were open far quicker in 2015 than in 2009.  It’s a kind of resilience that stems from surviving the challenges with an awe inspiring passion to succeed.

There are some success stories, showcasing this kind of active coping.  Take Hawkshead Relish for instance, a business developed by diversification when the business owner’s café was devoid of customers and their livelihood at threat during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak.  They looked at what resources they had available to them and created a whole new business, now boasting over 50 Great Taste awards from the Guild of Fine Foods.

What I’ve witnessed in Cumbria in the last three months is an ability to collaborate for the greater good, creating a strategic vision for the county.  The traits I’ve discussed in this article and the active coping style are the same ones I would be looking for in a personality profile for a potential leader.  It’s a county full of leaders.  But this is a home grown kind of leadership, learnt through experience and not taught.  So Cumbria, considering the skills shortage you face, in your search for the next generation of leaders possessing the right skills, you might not want to look too far afield.

If you would like assistance with assessing and developing leadership, take a look at our Development page or please contact us for a further discussion.