Resilient Leadership: Our Theory of Change

Tarun Galagali
11 Mins
Posted on
October 10, 2023

To be human is to know chaos. From the moment we develop consciousness to the moment we assume responsibilities, we come in frequent touch with the absurdity of existence. No matter how much you prepare and plan, literally anything can happen, and over the course of a lifetime, it often does happen. Consider the stories of Ana Garcia and Steve Johnson.

Meet Ana Garcia

The day before her senior year of college, Ana Garcia woke up to an email from the Assistant Dean announcing the closure of all in-person classes. The campus had been experiencing protests all semester and it made more sense for faculty to continue teaching virtually. Ana, who had been elected Vice President of External Affairs for her Student Body, watched as the text thread from her fellow Student Government leaders took fire; many were angry about the Dean’s decision, some were sending messages of solidarity, others were silent.

Ana felt nervous, but for reasons that had nothing to do with the crisis at-hand. A campus closure meant that she would stay at home with her parents and that’s not something she was looking forward to. Home was a place of constant passive aggression and tension between her mom and her dad. When she eventually realized she couldn’t solve their problems, Ana was focused on just making it out.

In high school, Ana successfully petitioned to take more AP classes than her school allowed. She set two cross country records and started a thriving Model UN Chapter. Sleepless nights didn’t faze her, nor did the cortisol rush that came with doing “too much." Ana could handle it. And ultimately, she was rewarded for it; her dream school offered her a merit scholarship.

In college, once or twice, she fell on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A school counselor had given her feedback to “slow down.” But that advice never really resonated with her. Would “slowing down” have helped her get to where she needed to go? Maybe other people with more resources and time and trauma-free parents could slow down. Not Ana.

And yet, here she was reading the responses to the Assistant Dean’s email feeling a wave of familiar panic overcome her. The President of her student body texted her privately: what did she think they should say? Ana didn’t know. She felt the pressure to say the right thing, be the right leader. But what did that even mean right now?

She wondered how to make sense of this chaos.

Meet Steve Johnson

The same night, across the country, Steve Johnson was driving home after having enjoyed a very productive day. Six months ago, he had taken a role as Senior Director of Product Management at a health-tech startup. Tomorrow, he’d have the chance to present a concrete product vision to the senior leadership team. He was ready.

Yet, right as he turned the corner on his home, he got a phone call from his older sister. Her voice was calm, but serious. He knew something was wrong. She told him that the back ache that their mom had been dealing with was, in fact, not a back problem. The MRI revealed a rare, and aggressive tumor that was metastasizing through their mom’s body. They would have to run a couple of more tests to find out what was going on, but by all accounts, it was cancer.

Steve could feel his mouth dry up. When his mom had complained about back pain a few weeks back, he assumed she had overextended her back lifting something at home. He had sent her a foam roller in the mail and told her to try a few exercises. But tonight, as he heard his sister go through some of the medical details of a tumor, he sat there shocked. He didn't know what to say. 

Was his mom going to be OK? What would he tell his wife, or his two kids? Would he still present tomorrow? None of it made any sense. Were they sure it was cancer? His sister told him their mom was sleeping. Steve put the phone down and walked to his doorstep.

He wondered how to make sense of this chaos.

Ana & Steve

One year later, Ana – after graduating with honors – flew across the country to begin a full-time job at a health-tech startup. She turned down a more stable consulting offer in favor of a start-up opportunity that spoke to her. She was excited about exploring a new side of the country. And she figured she could learn a lot from her new manager, Steve Johnson.

Steve’s life had changed considerably in the past year. Alongside his sister, he had stepped into the role of caregiver for their mom. He slept less than he normally did, but that was okay with him. Work had given him a refuge from questions that were unanswerable. And at work, he was excited about building out his product team, and eager to get some leverage from this new college graduate he had just met – Ana Garcia.

At first, Steve was a bit unsure about whether or not to hire someone who had never been in a workplace. But Ana had gone above and beyond what entry level product manager applicants do during the hiring process. The hiring committee, in particular his boss – Cynthia Chen – was impressed. And so, Steve figured it would be a good bet to bring her on.

A few months into her role, however, Steve was starting to have second thoughts. Ana was staffed on a project to help develop a feature for one of their largest customers. Steve felt it was a simple task, and he had confidence in her ability to handle it.

But the project was a disaster – the finished version of the tool would have 28 bugs. Steve had to have more than one difficult conversation with Cynthia about what had happened. And, he had to have at least one difficult conversation with Ana.

Suffice it to say, the conversation with Ana went poorly. Steve tried to be direct. He told Ana that he expected her to have a plan, and he emphasized that it was an easy project. If a project that was as straightforward as this didn’t go well, how could he trust her to handle a more complex project? When she didn’t respond right away, he was even more startled. Didn’t she feel the urgency of the mistake? How could she embarrass him like this? 

Ana, for her part, was caught off guard. 28 bugs? She had no idea what happened. All she knew was that she wasn’t good enough. She may have over-sold the company on her. That's what Steve was implying with his comments about the project being simple. So, was this it? Was he going to fire her?

They both wondered how to make sense of this chaos.

Empowering Both Ana & Steve

Steve and Ana are not real people. Instead, they represent a composite of real people who we’ve had the chance to partner with through our programming as a business. What we’ve observed is that well-meaning people are routinely running into chaos, and when it’s not managed well, that chaos translates into undesirable outcomes:

  • Disengaged Workplaces: 59% of people report feeling disengaged, and nearly 76% report having a mental health condition coming from their workplace. While there are many factors influencing their engagement levels and well-being, the main driver of both tends to be the relationship people have with their managers. 
  • Manager Burnout: Nearly 53% of managers are feeling burnt-out. They report feeling isolated in their roles, lacking the soft skills that could build thriving teams. Only 26% of managers feel confident in building resilient teams. And 74% report feeling reluctant to manage the next generation. 
  • Underutilized Potential: When managers struggle to manage, they normalize a culture of disengagement. Their teams no longer feel like they can or even want to bring their best ideas to work. And so they slowly start to consider other roles, or underutilize their potential – costing our global economy nearly $10 Trillion.

So where do we go from here? How do we support the Ana’s and Steve’s of the world? How do we support the Ana’s and Steve’s inside each of us? Enter: Resilient Leadership. 

Resilient Leadership

At Mandala, we focus on helping leaders develop a skill that is foundational to their long-term success: resilience. Whether they are leaders at companies or university students, the Steve's and the Ana's of the world will never be able to eliminate chaos from their lives. That said, with the right set of tools and empowering peer community, they can cultivate the capacity to respond to that chaos in a way that best serves them, and then, their teams. 

We define a Resilient Leader as one who is able to manage themselves (emotional regulation), manage their people (connection), and manage their ecosystem (growth-mindset). While presented sequentially below, they are not meant to be so linear. These skills overlap, and feed into one another. When practiced, they help establish the foundations of what it means to be a resilient leader in today’s world. 

(1) Managing Ourselves: Emotional Regulation. Emotions arise from the most ancient part of our brains -- our limbic system, which is nearly 350M years old. Most of the time these messages are designed to protect us. This is why our inner monologue can sometimes feel so overwhelmingly critical. Learning to accept the emotions that arise through a feeling wheel can itself offer meaningful reprieve from the trappings of our limbic system, allowing us to move into making more effective plans, and decisions.

Mandala Exercise: When we label the emotion arising before a one-on-one meeting and complement it with a 60-second breathing exercise, we soothe our limbic system and create space to truly listen to what is happening. We may not be able to control the chaos in our 1:1, but we can surely pay attention to what we’re feeling, take a few deep breaths, and then move forward into the conversation.  

(2) Managing Our People: Connection. Our capacity to connect is rooted in our default mode network, which helps us better understand our perspectives and the perspectives of others. This is a more recent evolution of the brain (2.6M years old), but evolutionary scientists and historians suggest that our capacity to connect was responsible for our evolution. Crucial to our capacity to connect is our ability to listen. 

Mandala Exercise:  The acronym of BLIP B.L.I.P. (breathe, listen, identify, and playback) can help us achieve this. If we take a breath before and throughout our 1:1, we calm our sympathetic nervous system and allow our mind to absorb the information coming his way. If we can ask questions and pay attention to conversational cues, we’ll begin to understand what kind of conversation they need to have and play back what we’re hearing. It’s then – and only then – that we might begin to understand what’s actually being said by the other person. 

(3) Managing Our Ecosystem: Growth-Mindset. Finally, our ability to plan is rooted in our prefrontal cortex, the youngest of our brain systems (300K years old). It’s through planning and responding and learning how to deal with failure that obstacles start to become opportunities, and negative outcomes don’t feel so sticky. 

Mandala Exercise: When we can build a values-driven approach to leadership, and practice non-attachment to outcomes we are paradoxically most likely to experience those very outcomes. And more importantly, because we had a set of values that mattered to us, the way we achieve those outcomes leave the people we worked with feeling more energized and excited about taking on the successive journeys to come. 

Practiced well, this combination of skills – emotional regulation, connection and growth-mindset – can turn people from passive recipients of chaos to resilient leaders. And in doing so, it gives people the best chance at achieving success over the long-term. Importantly, success doesn’t mean an immediate, and unending stream of positive outcomes. Nor does it mean a life bereft of chaos. 

To be human, after all, is to know chaos. Success means being able to better dance with chaos. It means accepting and understanding reality, and knowing how to position ourselves to best handle the obstacles that arise. Doing so requires that we know what we’re feeling inside, build the connective tissue to know what the world around us needs, and ultimately create the capacity to respond to whatever setbacks we regularly encounter. 

Our Approach

Changing behavior can be very difficult. It can take years of repetitive habit-building, mixed with systemic changes, for people to shift the way they operate. There’s no guarantee, even with a brilliantly executed program, that learning the skills of resilient leaders translates into becoming them. Still, here's why our approach gives us the best chance at doing so:

First, we take a neuroscience-based approach to the tools that we offer. All of our programming is rooted in our understanding of the brain and how we function as. And they are designed to be valuable outside of the professional context. Participants have reported that our tools make them better partners, parents, roommates, and friends.

Second, our learning model is rooted in the power of peer-based learning communities. By observing others, and seeing them open up about what they’re struggling with, we tend to deepen our levels of trust in others and expand our own awareness of ourselves. Most professional contexts don’t leave space for vulnerability. But when they create even a few hours of opening for that, they enable people to experience radical and meaningful change.

Third and finally, what makes Mandala unique is the third component of our programming: storytelling. We build customized stories for our partners believing that when we see ourselves and others in fictional characters, we not only expand our empathy for people who sit in different roles from us, we give ourselves a moment to reflect. On what occasions have we been Steve? On what occasions have we been Ana? What might each of those versions of us need? 

We partner with both workplaces and universities around the world – investing in the Steve’s of the world as they deepen their commitment to becoming leaders in the workplace, and in the Ana’s of the world as they move from an educational environment to a professional one. And our hope is to share as much of this learning as possible at-scale with everyone else. Even with all of the chaos in our world, our conviction remains in the resilience of people we read about, partner with, are raised by, and learn from every day of our lives.

We hope you’ll be one of them. 

Related articles.


Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

We’d love to bring you into the journey of Mandala as it unfolds.

Thanks for joining our newsletter.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.