Leaders as Learners: From Surviving to Thriving — the Role of Resiliency (Part III/III)
[Editor’s Note: A world-renowned speaker on organizational, business and personal resiliency, Eileen McDargh shares powerful stories and offers key insights on how we can cultivate a spirit of resiliency in our lives, moving from a mindset of survival to truly thriving. Divided into three parts, this interview is the fifth in the series, Leaders as Learners, that invites global thought leaders to take a deeper dive into the 16 principles of the Global Girls Project and their application to women and girls’ empowerment.]
(Sharon): In part I of this interview, we talked about what resiliency means – the ability to grow through a challenge or opportunity and into a mindset of possibility than enables us to truly thrive. In part II, we explored sources of resiliency and the role strength, courage, hope, faith, purpose, gratitude and forgiveness play in building resiliency. You emphasized the importance of being able to not only ‘choose’, but also ‘un-choose’ those thoughts, behaviors and patterns that no longer serve us.
Recognizing the important role resiliency plays in empowerment, what led you to first become interested in the subject of resiliency? How has resiliency enabled you to overcome obstacles and ultimately thrive in your own life?
(Eileen): When I look back at my life, I don’t know that I had the word ‘resiliency’ in my head. I first wrote the book, The Resilient Spirit, after 911, because I was so moved by how the American public pulled together in response to the tragedy. That was the impetus for me looking at what resiliency is all about. Increasingly, as I watched my mother, looked at my colleagues, etc., I realized more and more that resiliency was at the core.
Another word that comes to mind is ‘grit’. I think of grit as being the determination not to give up when it feels right to you. There’s a capacity within us to seek what it good. That’s what I find myself really intrigued by. How do we live in this world in a way that promotes sustainability, soulfulness, stamina and staying power?
(Sharon): When it comes to resiliency, I think of the importance of role models and other people’s stories to provide hope and a path forward. Like you, I think of my own mother. In 1982, when she was 40 years old, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and had 2/3 of one lung removed. In my early teens at the time, she was told she would not likely survive. It’s now been over 30 years! She’s definitely a source of inspiration for me when it comes to resiliency. She has overcome many challenges in her life and still continues to thrive – even through the care-taking and recent passing of my father after his own extended battle with cancer. I think finding those role models in our life can be an important source of strength.
As Jesse Stoner describes in her post on vision, there is both personal resiliency and collective resiliency. In the face of oppression and the fight for gender parity, how do we build collective resiliency to advance the rights of women and girls?
(Eileen): Great question! First, every community or collective is the sum of the individuals who are in it, so it always has to start with the individual. Second, we need to realize that that we are not in this by ourselves. How I build up others can also build up myself. I believe that collective resiliency begins with awareness — how do we protect our sisters, our mothers, who are around us? It is talking about the issues and taking small steps.
When I was high school, something happened that I’ve never forgotten. When I was growing up, being smart was bad. Smart meant that you were not popular. Smart meant other people were jealous of you. The most popular girl invited everyone in the school to her party except me. My friend, Michelle, was invited, but declined the invitation and told her she wasn’t going because I wasn’t invited (though she never told me until much later). She took a stand for me in the face of something that was not in the interest of the (popular) group, but in the interest of her.
So in essence, collective resiliency begins with the small steps that we take that are just and honest. It begins with asking ourselves, how do I honor the dignity of the person who is here and how will I support that? Overall, I think women can do a much better job of speaking up on behalf of each other by asking, how can I help you move this along? It’s mentoring each other. If you have a skill set that somebody else doesn’t have and they need it, how can you share what you know to help others? This ability to have staying power, stamina, and a deep knowing that you matter, is done in our conversations and the way in which we show up for one another.
(Sharon): Two years ago I had the great honor and privilege of sharing a meal with former Ambassador and U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, over dinner one evening in Charlotte. We had a tremendous conversation around mentoring, women, and the many hats we wear – as professionals with our own dreams and ambitions, as mothers, as daughters, as sisters, as friends, etc. During our conversation, she shared one of my favorite quotes from her: “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I love that quote! It really embodies her fighting spirit, which I truly admire.
Despite the importance of supporting and lifting one another up, one of the challenges I see in this gender debate is the tendency to create silo-ed conversations, where women are pitted against one another instead of coming together. There’s the corporate climber conversation and the mommy wars conversation. There’s the first world conversation and the third world conversation. This divisive dialogue was one of the core drivers for me in creating this project. Though the individual issues and needs may vary, I believe that if we look at the subject of empowerment and women’s leadership through the lens of character, it’s a unifying force that enables us to come together.
Kicking the question back to you, how do you create collective resiliency in the face of these silos and factions that sometimes, perhaps inadvertently, create more division than they do unity?
(Eileen): I think it’s the conversation. For example, you chose to make this project global – not a U.S. or North Carolina-based project. It was a choice point when you asked yourself, how can I begin to expand this conversation? I don’t think you can stand up and say the silos have to come down. It has to be on an individual basis through having those conversations. One of the nice things about the internet is the ability to reach out an connect with others – whether through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or another social media channel. How can I get to know what your world is like? Even if we’re not real time, how can we begin to have this conversation with each other?
An extension of her book, Sheryl Sandberg has started these Lean In circles, designed to help women ask themselves, how do I honor and listen to the voice that I have? How do I own whatever I choose to be my place at the table? It doesn’t mean I have to climb to the top.
Right now I have a tip booklet called Forty Tips for How to Stand Up, Stand Out and Be heard. It’s a facilitators guide for women and girls, designed to teach others how to let themselves stand up and be heard. If I can let my voice be heard – whether in my school, community, business, church, etc., it’s another way of beginning to say, how do I break down the walls that we all put around ourselves…walls that are created through mindsets, economies, geographies, etc.? It’s a way to begin to have deeper conversations that allow who I am to be present with who you are. It is the intentionality of you and me and how we bridge those conversations. From those one-on-one conversations comes an interconnected web.
Take Malala, for example. Because of what happened to her, there’s now a large awareness and movement about education for girls who are denied it. We can even look at that in our own United States. Where is it that we have not created systems to allow people the opportunities to grow? It’s that one-on-one conversation that enables us to build the collective through the individual, knowing that not everyone is going to do that outreach. It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing. What matters is what you have chosen to do.
(Sharon): What advice do you have for women and girls who struggle to build the resiliency necessary to overcome obstacles and constraints and live a fully empowered life? What specific steps can they take to begin to develop resiliency from within, necessary to live their own voices out loud?
(Eileen): First, I believe firmly in the power of journaling and writing. When we keep our thoughts in our head, we can’t objectively sit back and look at them.
What do you put in the journal? Come up with a list of the negative things that you say about yourself and list them all (e.g. I’m tired, I’m confused, I’m lonely, etc.). Then imagine you have three columns. The left hand column contains all of the negative aspects that you’re encountering right now. The right hand column lists all of the things that would be the opposite of that. Instead of being tired, for example, you’re energized. Instead of being confused, you’re clear-minded. The middle column includes small actions I could take that would allow me to move from the left column to the right; from tired to energized, for example. My action might be I’m going to try to get at least six hours of sleep, three times a week. ‘Doing’ is important and action is the antidote to anxiety! If I’m confused, I might ask myself to identify what I’m confused about. I might ask myself, who do I know who has been here before and can help me? What books can I read that might be of assistance? You take what is, define what you want, and identify actions you can take that will help you bridge the divide between those two things.
Secondly, you need to explore where it is that you might need to stand up for yourself. Maybe it’s something small. I remember when I taught school, one of the parents came in (the child was six) and told me that the child said to her parents, “I might be sitting down, but in my mind I’m standing up!” That’s a great line! Perhaps there are times when we feel we don’t have a choice, but our mind can help us create a new reality over time.
I also believe in asking for help.
Finally, I must ask myself: What is it in my life that at face value, I feel I have no control over? What is it in my life that leaves me feeling disempowered and not resilient? Of these things I feel I have no control over, what can I adapt, amend, accept, alter or avoid? For example, I live in Southern California where we’re subject to earthquakes – something I have no control over. But are there actions I can take that give me choice points on what I can do to help me with what feels completely outside of my control? I could choose to move, for example, but I choose to be married to my husband who loves Southern California and is not about to move. I can educate myself and be prepared – with flashlights, medicine, blankets, food, hard-soled shoes, water, etc. in the event of an earthquake. To bury my head in the sand about this reality would not be a good choice for me, so while I am not in control of an earthquake, I will do as much as I can to be prepared and therefore, resilient.
(Sharon): I have no doubt you’ll be resilient because you’re informed, you’re prepared, and you have an attitude of possibility beyond your circumstance.
(Eileen): Great answer!
(Sharon): Thank you, Eileen, for this rich and robust conversation! You’re a wonderful role model and source of wisdom for others — positively contagious in spirit and resilient in thought, word and deed!