Resilience has been much talked about these past few years and the challenges of the pandemic coupled with ongoing uncertainty, mean that continues to be the case.

Supporting leaders to be resilient therefore preoccupies many of our learning and development clients who, like you, recognise its importance not only for individual wellbeing but also for organisational performance.

When times are as challenging as they currently are, even those organisations whose C suite recognise they should support people to increase their resilience, can lose their way. The temptation might be to just “suck up” extra work and to deal with ever tougher challenges, hoping that “this too shall pass”. But the result of that is all too well known – stress, anxiety or full blow burn out. HSE statistics show that in 2019/20, 17.5 million working days were lost to stress.

So, to that eternal question – what enables people to handle the stress of uncertainty and the pressure to deliver in the face of ever-growing workloads? In this blog we look at the hallmarks of resilient leadership, and provide a reminder of the most effective ways to build it, which might also help your thinking about how to support people across your business with their resilience too.

The hallmarks of resilient leaders

Starting with the hallmarks of resilient leaders, Brent Gleeson, a former US Navy Seal turned leadership consultant, says that these are:

  • Maintaining emotional equilibrium and composure under stress, and not agitating others by spreading tension and anxiety.
  • Being able to tolerate ambiguity or uncertainty and to adapt readily to new situations
  • Being able to put stressful experiences into perspective and not dwell on them
  • Communicating confidence and steadiness during difficult times
  • Being able to prioritise.

Born resilient?

It’s important to acknowledge that it can sometimes feel as though some people are born and raised to be resilient – they lucked out with their genetic inheritance from “glass half full” parents who also taught them from an early age how to handle disappointment and failure. So, how do people who didn’t have this sort of inheritance, build their resilience?

The Good news

Much of what follows might feel familiar but with wellbeing at stake and the pay offs being significant (clarity of thinking; stronger working relationships; improved team morale; a focus on what really matters; to name but a few), we think it bears repeating.

Based on our experience of working with senior leaders, supporting them to build strong resilience, the good news is that there are clear pointers to follow. More than anything it’s about a mindset shift and while those don’t happen overnight, they certainly do happen. So, what have we seen leaders do to support themselves and what does this mean for you or other leaders in your business?

They identify a clear purpose and stick to it. Know what you want to achieve, why and how. Having this focus helps with decision making and maintains a sense of control.

They know what they can and can’t control. Focusing on what you can control and influence instead of using precious resources in other areas preserves much needed energy.

They are agile and adaptable. Resilient leaders have a growth mindset, so they view setbacks as opportunities for growth and importantly, have the courage to be imperfect. This supports innovation and creativity as it encourages “trying something new” rather than “getting something right”.

They take honest stock of their skills and experience and are transparent about them. The days of having all of the skills and knowing all of the answers are over. To be resilient you need to lean in to the skills in your team.

They are aware of the big picture and pace themselves. Pacing yourself can be difficult but you can’t be in “big push” mode on a permanent basis. Try to recognise when “keeping going” is enough, and that you can’t “do it all” simultaneously.

They build a supportive network. They’re not afraid to ask for help. The most successful leaders don’t see it as vulnerable to ask for help – rather it’s the obvious thing to do. And they happily reciprocate for others.

They are clear about their boundaries so they have time to re-charge. It might need a lot of courage if your default is to say yes, and the pressure is coming from above, but unless you make clear what an acceptable level of work looks like, you will consistently lose the time you need to re-charge.

And finally, an inspirational truth…

We’ll sign off with words from Nelson Mandela, a truly resilient leader: “It’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself that determines how your life’s story will develop.”