5 Ways To Build Resilient Leadership In Challenging Times

The genie is out of the bottle, and organizations cannot go back to the way things used to be. The aftermath of covid is going to be felt by leaders and organizations for years to come.

If you are currently feeling the stress and burden of leadership, you are not alone. Many leaders are being challenged by a new and more complex landscape.

Why will some succeed and others fail? The secret to leaders thriving in this new landscape is resilient leadership.

But what is resilient leadership, and why is it so important? How do you build your resilient leadership skills, so you can thrive in challenging, disruptive, and turbulent times?

In this article, I give you five key strategies to thrive as a resilient leader.

What Is Resilient Leadership?

According to Professor George Kohlrieser,[1]

“Resilient leaders can sustain their energy level under pressure. So that they can cope with disruptive changes and adapt. They bounce back from setbacks. They also overcome major difficulties without engaging in dysfunctional behavior or harming others.”

New Scientist reports that “your reaction to stress and how quickly you return to normal when the stressor has passed is called resilience.”[2]

This definition tells us that stress and resilience are inextricably linked. Leaders stuck in stress states will find it much more difficult to be resilient. Managing stress becomes a significant factor in building leadership resilience.

According to the Center for Creative Leadership,[3]

Resilience is “our ability to respond adaptively to challenges. It’s what helps us get back up again, stronger, after meeting life’s hurdles, disappointments, and failures. It’s more than simply bouncing back from adversity or not breaking in the face of hardship. Resilient leadership also includes growth.”

This definition highlights the importance of self-growth. For growth to occur, there has to be change. Change isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary.

To build your resilient leadership skills, you will need to learn to adapt and embrace change.

Is Resilient Leadership Critical to Leadership Success?

According to a study by Zenger Folkman, “building resilience is vital to becoming a leader who can successfully navigate through challenges and guide others with courage and conviction.”[4]

Folkman found that leaders with high levels of resilience are viewed as being more effective by their managers, peers, and direct reports.

According to an in-depth study of leadership and resilience, “resilience is not an end state of being, but rather a process of adaptation and growth within a risky landscape. A resilient organization not only survives but also thrives in an environment of change and uncertainty.”[5]

In more compelling evidence, Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn states,[6]

“Resilience is the capacity to not only endure great challenges, but get stronger in the midst of them. This is such an extraordinarily important capability because we live in a world that’s one nonstop crisis—one calamity, one emergency, one unexpected, often difficult surprise—after another, like waves breaking on the shore.”

Added to this, leaders through their position strongly influence and impact the people around them. Making it even more critical for leaders to be resilient and thrive under pressure.

If the leader goes down. The team goes down. As a leader, you are the captain of the ship. Building your resilient leadership skills ensures that you and your team reach your destination unscathed.

Is Resilience a Learned or Innate Trait?

Studies in neuroscience have found that the brain is very plastic or changeable. Norman Doidge, in his book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, gave many examples of brain plasticity. Therefore, you are not fixed at birth and are capable of learning how to build resilience.

For some, this will be easier than for others. However, the good news is the more you are exposed to challenging situations, the greater the opportunity to build your resilient leadership skills.

Your brain can assist you with this because it is designed to help you grow, learn, and adapt. This is part of its inbuilt survival mechanism.

Therefore, the greater the challenges, the greater the opportunity for growth and resiliency.

5 Ways to Build Resilient Leadership in Challenging Times

1. Growth Mindset

Developing a growth mindset is an essential ingredient to building resilient leadership. Resilience is your ability to respond adaptively to challenges. Being able to adapt requires change, and positive change leads to growth.

The quickest way to grow and create new opportunities is through adversity. Without adversity, there would be little growth, and without growth, you cannot realize your potential.

Learn to see every challenge as an opportunity to step into the greatest version of yourself. Trust that you will always find the answers. But first, you have to seek them out.

You do not have to figure it out by yourself. Leverage the power of the collective mind power of your team and work colleagues.

Putting It Into Action

Next time you feel stressed or overwhelmed by a situation, ask yourself: How could I either approach or think differently about this situation? Who would be the ideal person/s who I can explore this with?

A greater you always exists within. Do not pass up any opportunity to awaken that greater self.

The reality is you do not have to stay stressed or stuck. A solution always exists when you embrace a growth mindset.

2. Mindfulness

Scientists and self-help gurus often times argue that some sources of stress and misery are caused by ruminating on our worries while robbing us of the present. Mindfulness and mindfulness tools such as meditation have proven to boost our moods and our overall health. [7]

I am sure you are familiar with that voice inside your head that never shuts up. It continually wants to judge, complain, compare, and assess everything as good or bad. It is constantly interfering with your concentration, clarity of thought, decision-making, and peace of mind.

It is often this same voice that interferes with your ability to be a resilient leader. How much more productive and positive would you be if you could tame this inner critic?

Putting It Into Action

Mindfulness and meditation practices can help you tame your inner critic. If you are new to these practices, the following are two simple and effective techniques that can help.

Do Not Resist Your Thought or Feeling

Next time you have a thought that is making you feel uncomfortable, such as feeling bad, guilty, inferior, worried, or any other negative emotion, stop and allow the thought or feeling to just be without trying to resist or judge it.

If your experience is anything like mine, you will find the thought or feeling just disappears. If you do not get this result straight away, stay with it. It works.

Just make sure you are meeting the thought/feeling head-on without resistance. When you embrace and accept it, suddenly it disappears.

Perform a Breathing Exercise

The first technique is great for getting rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings in the moment. However, if you want to lessen them over time, the following technique will assist you.

Find a comfortable seated position where you will not be interrupted for five minutes. Place your smartwatch or phone’s timer on for five minutes. Close your eyes and breathe slowly in and out through your nose, focusing on just your breathing.

Use the system of breathing where you inhale to the count of four, hold for seven, and then exhale to the count of eight.

Also, make sure you are breathing from the diaphragm. You know you are doing this when on the in-breath, your stomach pushes out and on the outbreathe, it moves in.

This technique has two benefits. First, you are training your mind to stop its incessant chatter.

Second, it will effectively slow your heart rate and increase oxygen into your bloodstream, which can act like a mild sedative. It will instantly relax your heart, mind, and overall central nervous system.

This type of breathing helps regulate the part of your brain responsible for the fight, flight, and freeze responses. Doing this exercise regularly makes you less likely to experience these states when under stress.

Start by doing this practice twice a day, once in the morning and again at night. It is easier to make this a habit if you choose the same time each day like as soon as you get up and just before bed.

Also, if you find things getting out of control during the day, use it to get yourself back on track.

3. Being Present

Much has been written about living in the present moment. The most well-known is the book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, by Eckhart Tolle.

Being in the present moment is powerful because you are not bound by limiting beliefs and past failures or worried about the future. Instead, you have full access to the power of your mind when you are in the present moment.

To demonstrate the power of being in the present moment, consider the example of elite athletes. Why is it that they can excel one day and perform poorly the next? Did their skills suddenly disappear overnight?

Let’s imagine a tennis player who is about to serve the ball. They look up and see that it is break point. Their thoughts and focus suddenly jump to the future and what happens if they lose the point. That means less energy and focus on hitting the ball.

However, what would happen if they forgot about the scoreboard and entered the present moment?

They do this by placing all their focus on serving the ball. They are so focused that their mind may even alert them to their opponent making a slight movement in a particular direction. This enables them to adjust their serve and easily win the point.

This is how great players consistently win matches. They realize the power of placing their mind and focus on the present moment. Being a scoreboard watcher will always take you out of the present moment.

As a leader, your ability to succeed lies in accessing the power of the present moment. It also means that your need for resiliency becomes obsolete. This is because resiliency is a natural byproduct of being in the present moment.

Putting It Into Action

So, how do you practice living in the present moment?

Focus on taking one step at a time. Move from one moment to the next, just as a tennis player focuses their mind on playing one shot at a time.

Start by taking a small task you complete most days like communicating with a team member.

Now, pretend you are the tennis player and the ball is the team member. Place all your focus and attention on the team member and take one step at a time.

If thoughts come in to distract you, move through them as discussed earlier. Then, refocus your attention on the team member.

The more you play with this, the more interesting it becomes. Every time you practice this, you will gain greater insight and clarity because you are bringing all of you to the task and not just part of you. All of you include both your conscious and your creative unconscious mind.

4. The Power of Purpose

Let’s look at an example that shows how the power of purpose builds resilience.

Imagine taking a road trip. However, not long into the trip, your car breaks down. Fortunately, you find a car mechanic who fixes your car, and you set off again.

Because of the length of the trip, you have booked overnight accommodation. You arrive at the motel a lot later than expected, tired and exhausted. You approach the reception area only to be told there was a mix-up, and they gave your reservation to someone else.

You are ready to scream. Left with no alternative, you decide to sleep in your car.

You set off again early the next morning. As you are driving along a deserted road suddenly a wild hog runs out in front of your car. You swerve to miss the hog and end up in a ditch on the side of the road. Your car becomes bogged because of a heavy downpour of rain during the night.

At this point, you think, “you know what? This isn’t meant to be. I am having way too many problems. I think I will go home.”

As you are thinking this, a man in a four-wheel drive stops and helps get your car out of the ditch.

After thanking the man, you set off again. After a couple of hours of driving, you decide to stop and get something to eat.

As you go to pay for your meal, you notice your wallet is missing. You realize it must have slipped out of your pocket when you were trying to get the car out of the ditch. At this point, you are well and truly over your road trip and definitely decide you are heading back home.

Leadership is like this. Sometimes, you run into one problem after another, leaving you feeling stressed and defeated.

Returning to our example: What would you have if upon setting out on your trip, you had a strong purpose for reaching your destination?

Maybe the purpose was to see your parents, who because of unseen foreseen circumstances, you have not seen in two years. It is the longest time you have ever gone without seeing them. They are so looking forward to seeing you, and you cannot wait to see them.

What do you think your decision would be when you realized you had left your wallet on the side of the road? Would you decide to go home? Or would the motivation of seeing your parents encourage you to drive back, find your wallet, and continue your trip?

This is the power of having a purpose. When things get tough as a leader, you will always find the motivation to be resilient.

Putting It Into Action

Why do you do what you do? Why did you become a leader? What is your big “why”?

Having a big “why” is essential to building resilient leadership. When you develop a big enough “why,” nothing will ever stop or defeat you again.

5. Keep It Real

Putting things into perspective and being realistic is another simple and effective way to build resilient leadership. Here are a few simple strategies to make it easy for you to do this.

Circle of Influence, Circle of Control

Popularised by Stephen Covey, this strategy has 3 key components:[8]

  • The Circle of Concern – This contains the wide range of worries/concerns you might have about a topic.
  • The Circle of Influence – Here, you narrow down the first circle into those worries you can do something about, either directly or indirectly.
  • The Circle of Control – The 3rd circle is an even smaller circle, representing the things you can actually directly do something about.
circle of control influence and concern
Putting It Into Action
  1. Grab a piece of A3 paper and some colored marker pens. Draw a large circle that fills the page.
  2. Then, draw another circle inside the first one.
  3. Next, draw a third circle inside the second circle. Make sure you leave enough room in each of the circles to write notes.

If you wish, you can just create lists instead of using circles. The advantage of using circles is that it will increase your brain’s cognitive thinking abilities, making it quicker and easier to complete the activity. This will also be enhanced by using different color marker pens for each circle.

Using the model above in the first circle, list your concerns. In the second circle, list the things you can influence. In the third circle, list the concerns you can do something about.

Last, prioritize the list of items in the 3rd circle according to importance. Develop implementation strategies for your top two priorities.

Facts vs Feelings

Added stress occurs when you mistake feelings for facts. Being able to distinguish between the two is another great way of building resilient leadership.

Putting It Into Action

Every time you are feeling stressed or worried about a situation, ask yourself: What evidence do I have that supports my concern about this situation?

Note that you need actual evidence that would stand up in a court of law. Feelings and assumptions do not count. These are coming from past experiences or future worries. They have nothing to do with the current situation.

Most of the time, you will find that your concerns are not based on facts. Instead, they are a story you have created in your head. It is not fact, but fiction.

Make a commitment to stick to the facts and not your stories.

The Catastrophe Scale

This is a great technique for putting things into perspective. Use it when you believe a situation couldn’t get any worse.

Putting It Into Action

Grab a piece of paper or imagine this visually in your mind.

  1. Draw a horizontal line and divide that line into ten equal parts.
  2. Number each part from left to right from 1 to 10. (1 = minor situation; 10 = totally catastrophic situation)
  3. Bring to mind a situation that feels to you catastrophic. Then, place an X on the line that matches your level of concern.
  4. Now, place an X on the line of how you would feel if you broke a cup.
  5. Next, place an X on the line that indicates how you would feel if you were involved in a serious car accident and became a quadriplegic.
  6. Revisit your current situation and make another X on the line that matches your level of concern.

Often, you will find there is a marked difference between your first and second assessments.

It is so easy to pull things out of proportion and cause undue stress and worry. Every time you do this, you diminish your problem-solving and decision-making abilities. This is because the part of your brain responsible for higher-level cognitive thinking shuts down under stress.

Final Thoughts

As a leader, you are in a position of great power to influence and impact the lives of the people around you.

Leadership in today’s turbulent climate isn’t easy. It is easy to become stressed and lose focus on your goals as well as what truly matters. Today, more than ever, leaders need to be resilient.

Every journey begins with a single step. Choose one strategy from the five listed. Then, commit to taking action on it.

The impact you have as a leader can only be as great as your decisions and actions.

I would like to conclude this article with the last stanza of the poem Invictus, written by William Ernest.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

The poem is said to have provided Nelson Mandela with the needed inspiration to survive during his most difficult times, allowing him to become a great leader who had a big impact on the world.

Featured photo credit: Jehyun Sung via unsplash.com


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