I hate the word “resilience”.
Not because of its meaning, but because of the way it has been used and abused in corporate culture.
Resilience is the ability to withstand – and recover from – adversity. That trait is essential to human survival. Without it, a person will buckle under any kind of pressure.
In recent years, a whole industry has sprung up around resilience. Coaches reckon they can teach people how to “be” more resilient.
Certainly, it is possible to teach cognitive and emotional skills that will help people to overcome challenges – and bounce back from them. There’s real value in that.
But this approach has some perverse consequences. If someone is struggling, we often attribute that to a “lack of resilience”. In other words, it’s their fault. They’re not strong enough. They’re deficient. They need to harden up.
In reality, the cause of that person’s distress may be found in their environment – in the structures and institutions that surround them.
Quite possibly, that’s the moral of the Todd Muller story. When he resigned on Tuesday, he noted that his job had become “untenable from a health perspective”. Muller, as we know, had been under immense pressure.
The shock resignation of a leader is typically followed by a brutal post-mortem of their political career.
That didn’t happen, because it was clear that Muller was not well. His resignation was met with surprise and – from some quarters – empathy, rather than the usual displays of schadenfreude.
But a leader shouldn’t have to wave a white flag, in the way that Muller did, for us to allow them to display vulnerability.
In the public arena, we expect leaders to be bulletproof. To be unflappable and unshakeable, even while trapped in the middle of a political firestorm – as Muller found himself, after the Hamish Walker saga.
Politicians are expected to project an air of confidence, not just some of the time, but all of the time. There is no space – or grace – for a leader to say, “Okay, that was really messy”, “I wasn’t expecting that”, “I’m not sure how I feel about that”, “We kind of stuffed that up” or “We haven’t worked that out yet”.
Never in a million years could Muller have revealed that the job was harder than he thought. He couldn’t have admitted to the mistakes he made early in his tenure. He couldn’t have asked for more time to get up to speed with the demands of leading a major party.
Any such admissions would have quickly been seized upon by his opponents, and construed as examples of weakness or naivety.
Of course, Muller put himself in this mess. He rolled his own leader, in a swift but brutal coup that cost other people their jobs. He has to own that.
But haven’t we all had instances in our careers when we have bitten off more than we can chew? When we have put our hand up for – and perhaps even fought for – a role that we had misjudged, or one that we were totally unprepared for?
In that situation, it isn’t possible to muster up some more resilience. No matter how many breathing exercises you do or how many mantras you chant – if your identity, values or health needs have become incompatible with your work environment, then it’s time to go.
The bravest response is not to harden up or tough it out, while burying your inner turmoil. The bravest response is to say, “Hey, you know what? I’m out”. That’s what Muller did.
Politicians are not shrinking violets. They come to Parliament expecting to engage in combat, and to take blows. But although MPs must serve the public, they cannot be expected to sacrifice their mental wellbeing – or general sense of contentment in life – for their careers.
Yes, we should expect our politicians to be tenacious and to follow through on their commitments. And they need to be held accountable for their actions. But we should not ask them to hide their distress, or to stay in politics longer than they have the energy, will or capacity to do so. That is in no one’s interests.
Last week’s events reminded us that no matter what your job is, or how much your team values you, you have the right to put your own needs first.
We saw this in Amy Adams and Nikki Kaye, who decided to quit – following in the footsteps of other senior MPs including Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley.
While some pundits chided Adams and Kaye for resigning so close to the election, both MPs gave clear explanations for why it was the right time – for them – to leave.
The party’s landscape has changed dramatically in recent days, and so has its leadership. Right now, Adams and Kaye believe they can make a more valuable contribution to New Zealand by stepping outside the political arena.
Rather than being bullied into feeling bad about leaving National – each after 12 years of service – these women should be applauded for making decisions on the basis of their values.
“I have given everything to the party and to the country,” Nikki Kaye said in a radio interview, through tears, as she recounted how her experience of breast cancer had changed her priorities.
“You have to know when your time is up,” she said.
If someone chooses to take a break, or to disappear from the spotlight, or even if they decide to resign from a job, that’s their prerogative – whether they are a politician, a truck driver, a teacher, a CEO or an All Black.
Perhaps they haven’t “fallen on their sword”, as we in the media often describe it.
Perhaps they have just come to a realisation about their own desires. Perhaps they have recognised that an unhealthy work environment is taking a toll on them.
In a country that claims to be tackling its mental health crisis, we should offer our leaders support – as we offer to everyone else – to make choices that ensure their long-term wellbeing.
After 12 years in politics, Nikki Kaye says she wants to spend a weeknight in her pyjamas, sitting on the couch watching TV.
That doesn’t mean she needs more “resilience”. It just means she’s human.
Jehan Casinader is a Wellington-based journalist