How Do Leaders Build Resilience?

Becoming a more resilient leader requires three essential capabilities that reduce anxiety, improve productivity, and support leadership effectiveness.
Share on twitter
Share
Share on linkedin
Share

The importance of resilience in leaders

The resiliency of leaders impacts how they think, feel and perform and so it also impacts the performance and engagement of their teams. We find in our work that when resilience is high, leadership behaviour is high, stress is low and people report better team dynamics.

Fuelled by constant change and advances in technology, business leaders are required to adapt and transform with ever-increasing speed. Today’s dynamic complexity demands an ability to thrive in the ambiguous and a context that, if left unmanaged, generates anxiety, negatively impacts productivity and undermines leadership effectiveness.

To put it bluntly, the world has changed so quickly it has created a significant risk. A risk that left unmitigated impacts the leader, the wider team, and the organisation’s effectiveness and resilience.

That risk is a lack of resilience in leadership. To be more specific, a lack of ability to influence, build and maintain resilience with a dedicated skills base.

What is resilience in leadership and what is a resilient leader?

Resilience has been around for many years and is often associated with bounceback. That’s a key attribute for any leader in adversity, although it is only half of the story because resilience exists on a scale between coping and thriving. Therefore, leaders need to know the mechanics of engagement at any given point as they move along the resilience scale.

For example, a resilient leader understands the impact of thinking, feeling, and relationships on their ability to recover from setbacks quickly during times of adversity. In the good times, the same underlying skills, habits and mindset maintain positive emotion and create conditions where people thrive. In short, the same hard work that goes into bouncing back is the same hard work required to go from good to great if you understand the skills behind resilience.

We define resilience in leaders as:

" An individual's capacity to positively adapt to setbacks, pressure and challenges AND create environments where everyone thrives. "

Notice how we have not used the words “bounce back” or a sole focus on the individual. Setbacks, pressure, and challenges can come from a positive change, such as increasing new customers or team expansion. They still require an ability to adapt positively. 

Some researchers and resilient leader training programmes focus on the individual, defining resilience in terms of mental toughness. The danger with this approach is the hefty cost on the team around a mentally tough leader, pushing ahead, delivering results despite the impact on the wider team.  

How do leaders build resilience?

A leader’s resilience is drawn from several different but interrelated attitudes, thinking styles, behaviours and habits. Used in combination, these add up to a mindset and resource to rise to challenges and create environments where people thrive.

At the Resilience Development Company, we have identified three essential capabilities that resilient leaders have:

1. Interpersonal capabilities

Emotional regulation: Leaders must regulate their emotions effectively to ensure they make accurate decisions and perform when needed, especially under pressure. Research has also shown that how a leader manages their emotion is also critical in determining whether the team’s outcome is positive or negative.

Many untrained leaders will suppress their emotion, believing it to be the most effective strategy. However, others believe that fully expressing their feelings is a better strategy. Both, in reality, can negatively impact the leader and the team and often, reappraisal and reframing is healthier for everyone and sustainable performance.

In short, leaders who regulate well, do well.

Supporting systems: Like anyone else, leaders need to release negative emotion and gather perspective. Many studies have shown that social support is a primary resilience factor. Yet, many people do not know how to build those relationships. The irony of leadership is that it is “lonely at the top”, so many rely on mental toughness. Unfortunately, without solid support systems in place, mental toughness can work against you and the broader results a leader is trying to achieve.

2. Behavioural capabilities

Drive & Direction: Setting direction is only one half of the leadership story. A resilient leader knows how to spot signs of disengagement and consciously employ skills to re-engage. They also role model the skills, habits and strategies to deal with the inevitable challenges they face as they set off in their chosen direction.

Challenge orientation: A resilient leader must understand their predominant stance to change and challenge and flex their behaviour to others if obstacles get in the way. This skill is critical in stakeholder management, spreading ideas quicker and easier and gaining support for change.

3. Reframing strategies

Optimism: Optimism is not a fixed trait that is unchangeable. There is a wealth of evidence that everyone can improve their optimism level (Seligman,2002). Our methodology focuses on understanding a leader’s thinking style when a setback occurs. When things go wrong, optimists tend to:

  • See the setback as temporary;
  • Consider how other people and unplanned events contribute;
  • Compartmentalise the problem rather than let it affect other aspects of their work.

This optimistic explanatory style can be learned and developed.

Strength: Understanding your strength can amplify and grow the positive and learn from and reframe the negative. If you have strong self-belief, you are more likely to tackle challenges head-on and persist. Demonstrating self-belief in the face of adversity will also help to increase confidence within the wider team and your own ability to grow and learn.

How to develop those three resilience capabilities in leaders

Many managers and leaders often start from a solid base of resilience, which has probably been a significant factor in their current success. That said, when questioned about their resilience, leaders can talk about the capability in the abstract but are unable to describe the skills base behind that capability accurately. This gap occurs due to what psychologists call declarative knowledge vs procedural knowledge. As a result, many training programmes struggle to turn knowledge into results. It is also why our work focuses on skills and activity rather than hard to implement theory.

In our programmes, we focus on 60+ behaviours that help leaders demonstrate their resilience. A teachable and actionable skill supports each behaviour and helps individual leaders demonstrate their resilience to others. For a leader who is seeking to be more resilient, we believe that an improvement in even a few of these factors will help.

The individual skills are best summarised in eight critical competencies and activities that leaders need:

1. Balancing opportunities and obstacles

Whilst everyone sees opportunities and obstacles when considering change, our profiling insight highlights the significant individual difference. Understanding and navigating this difference with a skills base helps a leader:

  • anticipate fears and motivations at work,
  • create a significantly greater understanding of others, and
  • provide a model for moving forward with a balanced view of both the risks and potential rewards.

2. Managing and mitigating stress

Stress is personal. It has a thinking part, a feeling part and a biological part. This truth is why everyone experiences stress, but we experience it differently and why it can change over time.

Stress affects productivity, relationships, health, the leader’s attitudes and the people around them. A resilient leader knows how to build buffers to stress and identify and reduce perceived stressors hidden to the untrained eye.

3. An ability to manage self

We all have internal dialogue and stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves (and others), which can have a considerable impact on how we feel, think and behave. When we see ourselves more clearly, we make better decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively.

4. Managing energy rather than time

Entire industries exist to capture our focus. With the added challenge of being responsible for people, that challenge is amplified in leadership. Resilient leaders understand how to work with their biochemistry for focus, engagement and productivity. It means they achieve more in the time they have and avoid the real and tangible risk of burnout.

5. Build belief in self through a deeper understanding of their character and innate strengths

Understanding the psychology of strength enables leaders to amplify and grow the positive and learn from and reframe the negative. Leaders who can make a purposeful effort to apply their strengths to their work are, on average, more effective, more productive and perceived as authentic. Unfortunately, many leaders are not consciously and concisely able to fully express their strengths and do not have the skills base to play to, avoid overplaying and developing strength in others.

6. Build trust and psychological safety in conversations

A leader cannot build strong relationships that stand up to adversity and lend the necessary support to make things happen if they are not trusted. Whilst many actions lead to trust at its simplest, building trust in conversation comes down to neuroscience and a fundamental understanding of how to avoid behaviour and a communication style that undermines trust.

7. Direction and drive

As mentioned previously, setting direction is only one half of the leadership story. Resilient leaders know how to spot signs of disengagement and consciously employ skills to re-engage.

8. Bring it all together when needed. This is the master skill.

Whilst we have identified eight critical competencies of our resilient leader model, each requires several skills to enhance the different aspects of resilience. These are not “one size fits all”, as every leader will have a resilience profile with different strengths and development areas. Leaders need to match specific skills to their needs depending on the individual and the context they find themselves in.

Mastering these eight competencies and activities leads to a more incredible prize: one which benefits the leader, the team and the broader organisation. It enables the leader to build environments where people want to come to work and thrive. Building resilience as a leadership competency through a skills base enables a broader outcome. This is the essence of our resilient leader training programme.

And finally, I’d like to add additional nuance to my view on resilience in leadership by dispelling two myths around resilience in leadership:

Myth 1: Mental toughness is the same as resilience

In our work, we often come across leaders who describe themselves as resilient. They are mentally tough in reality; they’ve built coping mechanisms around them, so they are OK, but it is often at the expense of the people around them. In colloquial terms, “they are alright, Jack” and only have half of our definition of resilience in leadership:

An individual’s capacity to positively adapt to setbacks, pressure and challenges and create environments where everyone thrives.

Often their adaption is maladaptive and can lead to emotional, mental and health problems.

Myth 2: Personal resilience is all within an individual's control

It is also easy to believe that a leader’s personal resilience is all within their control. In reality, it is not. As soon their personal resilience meets their environment, there are factors in the environment beyond their immediate control. That said, some of those factors are not beyond the team’s control. Having a shared skills base to build resilience enables everyone to create an environment where people thrive and reduce environmental factors that minimise personal resilience.

Summary

First, read through the checklist below and calculate to what extent your leaders demonstrate resilience factors. Then, rate your answer on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being low visibility and 10 being high visibilityResilient Leader Checklist.

Interpersonal capabilities

  1. Do our leaders regulate their emotion as opposed to repressing or fully expressing?
  2. Do they know how to build solid mental, emotional and social support systems in and around them?

Behavioural capabilities

  1. Do our leaders know how to spot signs of disengagement and consciously employ skills to re-engage?
  2. Do they understand their predominant stance to change and challenge and flex their behaviour to others if obstacles get in the way?

Reframing strategies

  1. Are our leaders optimistic? Do they:
  • See the setback as temporary;
  • Consider how other people and unplanned events contribute;
  • Compartmentalise the problem rather than let it affect other aspects of their work.

        2. Do they understand how to use strength to amplify and grow the positive and learn from and reframe the negative?

If your answer is anything less than a solid 10, then you have a gap. A gap that takes us to the beginning of this article and suggests that:

  1. Your leaders are not adequately prepared for the future.
  2. That this lack of preparedness means that your capacity is not sufficient to meet future demands.
  3. The gap is appearing in high priority, high stake areas.

Today’s dynamic complexity demands an ability to thrive in the ambiguous and a context that, if left unmanaged, generates anxiety, negatively impacts productivity and undermines leadership effectiveness.

The world has changed so quickly it has created a significant risk. A risk that left unmitigated impacts the leader, the wider team, and the organisation’s effectiveness and resilience.

Are you concerned?

Want to get started?

Get started with a conversation to learn more about our solutions and how we can help you meet your resilience training needs.