Viking Lessons in Resilience

Viking boat in sunset

Have you had a devastating setback in your business or career? Take a lesson in resilience from Viking warrior Eirik the Red, who engineered one of the grandest comebacks of all time in the late 900s.

The History Channel’s captivating drama series “Vikings” has piqued my interest in the Norse people, and no story has captured my imagination more than the tale of Eirik the Red. A ruddy redhead of fiery temper, Eirik became the “chief of chiefs” in colonized Greenland just a few years after being banished to a period of “lesser outlawry” by his Icelandic peers.

Outlawry was certainly a better fate than being put to death by their notorious ‘blood eagle’ method, but still it was no slap on the wrist. Outlawry meant that you were tossed out of the society and no one would give you shelter or food.

Eirik found himself in such a state after a neighborly favor turned into a feud, according to the book Vikings: Raiders of the North. Eirik had loaned several large wooden beams to a neighbor named Thorgest, who used them as the main pillars of his home. After a while, Eirik decided he wanted the wood back, but when Thorgest would not deconstruct his home to return them, Eirik took the beams back by force, killing two of his sons in the process.

The local assembly decided Eirik’s reaction was not a reasonable one. Did he really expect the man to return the beams once they had formed the ceiling of his home? Personally, I think I’d have written the beams off as a gift once I saw the man build his house around them. At any rate, Eirik faced three years exile from Iceland.

Here is where it gets interesting, because Eirik was confronted with a choice, just as we are when faced with a setback like a sales decline, an economic downturn or layoffs at work. Should he go lick his wounds in a cave by the fjord for three years? Should he hang out near the village and hope his family and friends took pity on him? Or should he gather a group of fighters and overthrow the chieftains who sentenced him to outlawry?

Eirik instead displayed a very healthy measure of resilience in face of his adversity. Rather than seeking comfort and hoping for change, he used the setback as a springboard for adventure. He bought a sea-going knorr, loaded it with supplies, recruited a crew from among his followers and set off to discover the rich fjords of Greenland north of Cape Farewell.

That is resilience. Sometimes lumped in with hope and optimism, resilience is a related but different kind of ability that allows us to grow and stretch much further than we would simply by being hopeful or optimistic. Resilience allows us to be flexible, adaptive and improvisational in the face of our setbacks (job loss, product failure or exile) and to re-evaluate the situation based on the facts on the ground.

Not to say that hope and optimism aren’t important. They are the traits that ignite our willpower and keep us moving forward on our path despite the setbacks. A key difference between them is that hope and optimism tell us “stick to the plan and it will turn out okay.” Resilience allows us to make a new plan using the setbacks as new pathways.

So what is the lesson for us as leaders and professionals? To me, it is that resilience is key to a lifelong pattern of success and growth. Optimism and hope are important to our motivation, but it is our willingness to take calculated risks in turbulent times that moves us forward. Once his exile was over, Eirik convinced about 700 Icelanders to return to Greenland with him as colonists and became the chief of chiefs in the colony. The outlaw turned his period of exile into a time of discovery and ultimately re-emerged as a strong and innovative ruler of his people.

Communications professionals like myself have long extolled the virtues of using challenges and crises as opportunities to present an organization or an individual in the best possible light. Doing so takes resilience as well as confidence, a clear vision and the willingness to take action in uncertain or turbulent times. Taking a lesson from a fierce Viking warrior facing exile can help us bounce back fast from even the toughest of setbacks.