The world we live in is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). In fact, the recent pandemic is testament to that. In order to survive though, we need to be resilient, and nowhere has this need been more apparent than in the workplace.
Leaders have faced challenges they never even knew existed. They’ve had to make difficult decisions amid constantly changing circumstances. And in order to stay ahead, they've had to be adaptive, proactive, and have resilience by the bucketload.
After all, you can't create and build a resilient workforce if you don't have resilient leadership.
But how do you go about improving resilience in leaders?
Well resilience, like any skill, can be taught, learned, and honed through practice, and in this article we'll explore examples and strategies for doing just that.
What is leadership resilience?
Before we get into examples and strategies for improving resilience in leaders, let’s first take a look at what leadership resilience actually is.
When we think of resilient leadership, we often picture bold, brave, unflappable people. People who are seemingly immune to setbacks and failure. Well, these people might be resilient as well, but that isn’t what resilience is.
Leadership resilience isn’t about toughing up. It’s the ability to recover from setbacks. To adapt to change. To keep forging ahead even in the face of adversity. It’s about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, while still being able to lead others with empathy, courage and conviction.
As Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn says: “Resilience is the capacity to not only endure great challenges, but get stronger in the midst of them”.
Why is it so important to have resilience in leadership?
“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” - Bruce Lee
One of the most important traits of a great leader is resilience. The world we live in is a never ending carousel of crisis, followed by calamity, followed by emergency; one after the other.
Resilience isn’t a case of being able to mitigate against each one. It’s about being able to ride the waves of unpredictability and navigate crisis situations to ensure the business’ longevity.
Businesses that don’t have resilient leaders - people who remain calm under pressure and tackle adversity head on - won’t last long.
But resilience in leadership isn’t just about ensuring business growth.
High performing teams are led by resilient leaders, people who remain composed, who focus on goals, who don’t get distracted by the chaos and negativity of whatever is happening around them. Who listen and guide them, who provide support and stability, and who are a voice that champions their best interests.
You can’t develop high performing teams without resilience in leadership.
The link between resilience and psychological safety
- Psychological safety: Psychological safety in the workplace is the understanding that you won’t be punished for speaking up, that you can ask questions without fear of ridicule, that you can challenge ideas and the status quo without retribution, that you can admit mistakes, and voice concerns without fear of blowback.
- Resilience: Resilience in the workplace is the ability to not just survive, but thrive, despite challenges, adversity, and difficult situations.
They may at first appear to be two separate entities, but research shows a direct link between the two.
For example, people who are confident, composed, fearless, and self assured (traits of resilience), tend to create and contribute towards an environment which is psychologically safe.
Why is this link pertinent?
Because the workplace is full of challenges, and knowing that these are connected could help highlight where teams need further development, allowing them to bounce back faster and stronger.
Examples of resilience in the workplace
Before we get into how to build more resilient leadership, let’s outline a few examples of what resilience in the workplace looks like:
- A manager loses two team members in a week. Instead of getting stressed, they advertise the positions and recruit to replace these employees, while ensuring the work is spread equally throughout the team and nothing is missed.
- A team loses a big contract. Rather than attributing blame, the team holds a retrospective meeting and learns from their experience.
- A team member takes a risk and tries something new. It doesn’t work. Instead of letting this failure get them down, they learn from the experience and try again.
- The whole team gives and receives feedback - both positive and negative, taking the feedback positively and not personally, and learning from it. Need help structuring feedback? Take a look at these examples.
- A team member who survives a bad manager or team mates, who gets on with work, who calls them out, who doesn’t let them get them down.
- A role disappears in a restructuring, but the employee takes the opportunity to try for a new position or goes off on a tangential path.
How to build more resilient leadership
1. Encourage leaders to see obstacles as challenges
When confronted with challenges, many people will see an obstacle as an insurmountable problem. This mindset will hinder progress, stifle growth, and weaken resilience.
By encouraging leaders to view obstacles as challenges, they will build their curiosity, which will make them more inclined to want to solve the problem and move beyond it.
2. Teach them that stress isn't always a negative
When we think about stress, we often view it negatively - as an issue that needs resolving. But what if instead of trying to eliminate the stress, you teach leaders how to change their mindset so that they don’t always view stress as a negative?
By choosing to view stress as a challenge, leaders can choose to use their strengths to overcome the obstacle, building resilience, and developing self awareness.
3. Get comfortable with discomfort
The world isn’t going to stop being challenging and uncomfortable. The stresses and strains of modern life aren’t going to magically melt away. Things don’t go back to ‘normal’, we have to find a way through and create a new ‘normal’.
The only way to do that is by learning that change is normal and that by getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, gives us the strength and resilience to roll with the punches.
4. Learn to regularly reflect on the past
In order to lead others in a reflection exercise and develop resilience in employees, leaders need to have a strong understanding of themselves first.
Self-reflection allows leaders to explore their own strengths and weaknesses, to develop self awareness, to foster new perspectives and develop their own resilience.
By taking the time to regularly reflect on their actions and behavior, leaders can realize the strength they have as well as learn from past mistakes.
For example, an exercise managers can do is take a few minutes to recall instances where they demonstrated resilience in the past:
- What was the specific circumstance?
- What did they think and feel at the time?
- What actions did they take?
- How did they get through it?
- What did they learn from it that has made them more resilient today?
By making reflection a regular habit, leaders can learn to adapt their leadership style when challenging circumstances arise, and lead their team through turbulence.
5. Embrace continuous learning and development
Resilience isn't something you either have or you don’t. Like any skill, resilience can be learned and developed.
By viewing resilience as a muscle that can be made stronger by practicing it regularly, leaders can learn to approach challenges more positively, to bounce back from adversity faster and see that they can come out the other side stronger.
6. By being purpose driven
Setting and maintaining a clear sense of purpose at work ties a team together in difficult times. Over time, the team’s purpose can take a backseat to daily workload and day-to-day operations so it is essential that the manager and the team constantly revisit their purpose.
A regular reminder can serve as a source of emotional support during tough times, giving teams a sense of direction and meaning amidst a storm. Having an agreed set of values or team behaviors can also offer members guidance and support.
You can learn more about creating team purpose here.
7. By learning to deal with reality
One common belief about resilience is that you have to be optimistic to be resilient. But that’s only true as long as you don’t allow your optimism to distort your sense of reality.
According to Jim Collins, staying resilient means being able to deal with reality and still move forward. In his book, Good to Great, Collins shares the story of Admiral Jim Stockdale. Stockdale was held prisoner and tortured by the Vietcong for eight years:
Collins asked Stockdale: "Who didn’t make it out of the camps?"
Stockdale replies: "Oh, that’s easy. It was the optimists. They were the ones who said we were going to be out by Christmas. And then they said we’d be out by Easter and then out by Fourth of July and out by Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas again. You know, I think they all died of broken hearts.”
Final thoughts on developing resilient leaders
Team resilience is crucial for high performance, but it's largely dependent on leadership resilience.
At Saberr, we help managers develop the skills they need to be successful, including but certainly not limited to resilience. In fact, we equip them with the training, tools, resources, and support they need to not only develop these leadership skills, but also to adopt the habits and routines they need to lead high-performing teams.