The Resilient Leader - What Michael J Fox Can Teach Us

For someone who was a teenager in the mid-1980's like me, the actor Michael J Fox was seemingly everywhere. 

Not only was he the star of TV's 'Family Ties', but he also broke into film with the hugely successful 'Back to the Future' trilogy. (By way of a side note, the theme song for Family Ties included the amazingly confusing line "there ain't no nothing we can't love each other through" - to this day I'm still not sure if that's a good or bad thing given the number of negating words, but alas I digress). 

In 1991 Michael was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease - a progressively degenerative disorder of the central nervous system with no cure and relatively rare for someone his age (29 years old at the time). His diagnosis obviously came as a shock. Seven years later he publicly shared his diagnosis while on the successful TV show 'Spin City'. He has written several books about his experience and has become a campaigner for further research, particularly stem cell research, to find a cure for Parkinson's through his own foundation. It is in these roles that he has arguably had his greatest impact. There is a lot to be learned from Michael's optimism and resilience in the face of incredibly challenging circumstances. In the sessions I conduct with clients around resilience, I often start with this remarkable interview Larry King conducted with Michael. 

Some of the lessons about resilience we can learn from Michael's story include:

  • It's not about circumstances: In Michael's words, "don't wish for a lighter load, wish for broader shoulders". Most people would forgive someone in Michael's circumstances to feel sorry for themselves, but despite his circumstances Michael says "if I want to feel bad for anybody there's a long list of people, and my name is not on it".
  • Resilience isn't just about 'dealing with' life, it's also about 'getting the best' out of life. Resilient people aren't just adept at meeting challenges, they also look for the positive in life and chase after it.
  • Resilience takes time - it's not about naive 'positivity'. In Michael's case there was seven years between diagnosis and his public announcement of having Parkinson's disease. As he admits, there were dark days during this time. Michael doesn't come across as someone who is naive about the challenges and difficulties, but he does consciously choose his response.
  • There are habits that build resilience. In Michael's case, each morning as he walks past a mirror he looks at himself and says "What are you smiling at?". Resilient people have a range of habits in their everyday lives that shape the way they experience the world. I provide one example of a habit you can try later in this blog.
  • Resilience can sometimes be about living in the moment. The unpredictability of Michael's condition has the potential to dis-empower. However Michael uses this unpredictability to his advantage, choosing to make the most out of every moment.
  • Bad things will pass. Resilient people see the inevitable bad moments in life as temporary and restricted to one part of their lives. In contrast, people with less resilience tend to extend bad events to longer time horizons and stretch them across all aspects of their life. So the argument with a colleague at work can either be a one-off situation to be managed, or can take on broader and more negative impacts for those with less resilience. 
  • Resilience is often associated with meaning and purpose in life. Michael has found something beyond acting to give his life even more meaning and purpose. He is seeking to have an impact well beyond his life, and this helps motivate and drive him.
  • Social connections build resilience. In his books Michael often speaks of the support he has received from his wife and children, and how this helps to sustain his optimism. For some people this will be about having broad networks for people, while for others it may be a close friend or companion. Either way, these social connections are a good investment.

At this point you might be thinking 'well - that's great for Michael, but I'm not a resilient or optimistic kind of person'. The good news is that both resilience and optimism can be learnt and developed. One approach I recommend to resilience program participants is to note down three things you're grateful for at the end of each day (variations of this exercise and others can be found in the books 'Flourish' and 'The Happiness Advantage' - see resources below). Doing this keeps you focused on the positives and, overtime, you start looking for positive things around you during the day. Now this isn't just a 'nice thing to do', but has scientific merit - people who practice this approach develop resilience. As a family, we've built this into a meal-time ritual. Our three kids (who are still under ten and pretty used to their psychologist dad's crazy experiments) each share something good that happened to them during the day, and we as parents share ours too. What's interesting is that on the occasional 'bad day' I've had, the kids have often kick started this process themselves. In this way the kids have forced me to find some positive things that have happened even on the inevitable 'bad days' we all experience, and it's not long before I'm smiling and appreciating just how blessed I am.  

Resources on Resilience

Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte (2003) The Resilience Factor

Michael J Fox (2010) Always Looking Up - Adventures of an Incurable Optimist

Michael J Fox (2003) Lucky Man - A Memoir

Shawn Achor (2010) The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work

Martin Seligman (2012) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Link to Michael J Fox Foundation

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