Transforming Today’s Challenges Starts with Mindset

To call this an age of anxiety and stress couldn’t be more accurate. From political stalemates to climate change to social media privacy and democracy concerns — we are facing increasingly complex challenges, which we are reminded of as global leaders meet at the World Economic Forum. Shocks and crises are our new reality, with no country left unscathed, according to the United Nations Development Program.

More than ever we have to meet uncertainty head-on and learn how to deal with it not as a passing state, but as a condition of life. Part of this means embracing the evidence that our mental framework and our belief in our ability to face challenges is the foundation for turning them into opportunities.

Simply put those who excel in our chaotic world create transformative resilience: they turn challenges and disruptive change into innovation, learning, and growth. But they also address the root causes of crises and stress, overhauling ineffective, inequitable, or outdated practices and systems.

It begins with each of us. Yet, transformative resilience reaches far beyond our own trials and tribulations; it is something we must call upon as we face organizational, national, and global disruption and crises.

In his research on organizations that are high pressure yet highly reliable — hospitals, fire stations, and nuclear power plants — Tim Vogus of the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University found that the key to resilience and growth was not technocratic responses. It was an organization’s overarching culture, one that displayed confidence that together they would weather challenges.

We need technical expertise. And, at the same time our mindsets and collective beliefs — among a business, a community, or even a nation — are the foundations for ensuring we undertake the right analysis, partnerships, and initiatives. And, they guide the solutions we seek, creating new possibilities.

I recently spoke with Marcy Pressman, who was in charge of emergency responses at Bellevue Hospital, the oldest hospital in the US, when Hurricane Sandy crippled New York. They had been designated as a facility that would ‘shelter in place’ through the storm. So the collective mindset of the hospital staff and leadership had to rapidly shift when the hurricane was significantly larger than expected, knocking out power, disabling their elevators, and flooding the basement where pumps should have driven fuel to emergency generators on the 13th floor.

There was a desperate struggle to keep patients on life support alive let alone transport hundreds of patients to other facilities, many of which were also struggling. Just as it appeared they might lose a couple critically ill patients, Marcy remembers thinking, “Not on my watch. We’ll find a way to make something work”. It was a turning point. They formed a human chain to ferry buckets of fuel up the stairs to the back-up generator- buying them time. They later formed another chain to carry patients down the stairs in order to perform a full hospital evacuation. No patients were lost. All the scheduled surgeries were performed. Patient follow-ups were carried out. And, an additional emergency service unit was successfully created.

This was all made possible by the immense talents, efforts, and technical abilities that supported Pressman. Yet, much of it hinged on mindset and what she calls a “palpable institutional fight” driven by the commitment to the legacy of the hospital and to the community. Pressman also calls these events a blessing in disguise. It led the hospital to strengthen its systems and facilities and develop care for caregiver programs. And, it led to strengthening city-wide emergency systems.

These types of reframing abilities are critical on the national and international stage and will only become more so as we face growing challenges and disruption. Examining crisis responses by leaders in their 35 member states, whether dealing with natural disasters, economic crises, or terrorist attacks, the OECD has found that our mental framework is a key factor for effectively responding to and transforming adversity.

Leaders themselves, increasingly acknowledge the importance of mindset, which underpins culture. When Obama started his new role as head of state, he was instantly thrust into the crisis of an economy that was plummeting more quickly than during the Great Depression. On the day he began, 800,000 jobs were lost. “There was a lot of pain at that time and a lot of anguish and a lot of stress,” Obama recalled on an interview with David Letterman. But he also reflected on something first brought to his attention by Michelle Obama- the importance of what are often deemed “soft” skills to create progress out of adversity: “Part of your ability to lead the country doesn’t have to do with legislation. It doesn’t have to do with regulations. It has to do with shaping attitudes, shaping culture, shaping awareness.” Keep in mind that by the end of his presidency, the economy had added 11.3 million jobs.

There is no denying that we live in a time of increasing turbulence and with it comes an understandable amount of anxiety, stress, and loss that we must acknowledge and address. Yet for centuries there have been traditions of forging strength and growth from hardship and using it to create the next iterations of ourselves, our communities and businesses, and even our nations.

There has never been a greater need to reframe how we view adversity, and the different knowledge and skills that will allow us to be at home in and thrive amidst chaos. That means we have to be cognizant of the beliefs that either enable or limit our ability to seek new solutions and positive change.

Our challenges are immense. And so too are our abilities — when we are able to collectively reframe and work towards a common future.

Ama Marston is an internationally recognized strategist and leadership expert who has worked with leaders like Mary Robinson and economist Joseph Stiglitz, the UN, Oxford University, Fortune 500 and FTSE Companies and various NGOs. She is the co-author of TYPE R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World.