Resilient Leadership

A true measure of a leader – or any person for that matter – is how they respond when things don’t go according to plan. It’s not just setbacks but how they weather the dynamic and turbulent forces operating within organisations, political institutions and society that distinguishes leaders.

Some people seem to maintain their mojo despite adversity. While others are worn down by these forces, they manage to rise above them. They seem able to swim in strong currents.

Who comes to mind when you think of resilient leaders? For me it is people like Australian of the Year Rosemary Batty, Liberal Parliamentarian Malcom Turnbull, formerly exiled Myanmar parliamentarian and Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Sui Kyi. But who embodies resilience for you?

There is no doubting that resilient leaders have to dig deep. That’s why we think of them as being resilient. They face situations which challenge their commitment and often cause them to question their resolve. What’s of interest, however, is what they do in those situations. It is how they think and behave that distinguishes them as a resilient leader.

But firstly let me ask you:

  • How do you respond under pressure?
  • Where do you draw your strength from?
  • What lets you down?

More Than Perseverance or Resolve

It’s tempting to assume that resilient leaders are just built inherently stronger. However, Resilient Leadership is not just a question of persevering, or of being able to withstand more and more. It’s not about being superhuman. Anyone who thinks it is, is in danger of relying on adrenaline, manipulation or brute force to get them through. These strategies are inevitably short lived. Eventually the debt collector comes to claim his due, whether through health crises, relationship problems or burn out.

Some leaders retreat under pressure, frozen. They resort to avoidance for longer than is helpful.

I thought a lot about resilience in preparation for our Resilient Leadership Retreat in Provence. Reflecting on my own journey, I’ve learnt as much from what I’ve done poorly under pressure as what I’ve done well. Perhaps some of these principles resonate with you.

 1. Know What You Stand For

When a tree has deep roots it is able to weather wild storms. Leaders who move forward with a clear guiding compass have greater confidence. Their daily decisions and the way they handle the challenges of leadership are informed by a longer term view.

Of course a feature of adversity is that it can challenge our vision – or at least the form our vision has taken until now. Can you hold your deepest dream when outcomes elude you or you face a bend in the road? Can you use adversity to gain a fresh perspective?

Rather than merely persevering in the face of adversity, I find it essential to reconnect with and reset my own guiding compass. I work with leaders to revisit the values and deep guiding principles that their leadership and endeavors are based on. Deepen and refine your understanding of these values and what is needed to realise them.

2. Acknowledge the Impacts

It’s naïve to expect only accolades and successes in leadership. If you understand that slings, arrows and disappointments are inevitable from time to time, you’ll be better prepared for working with them.

Unless you’re made of teflon, chances are that setbacks will shake you from time to time. Acknowledge your reactions. Don’t soldier on regardless, or the cumulative effect will build up, catching you and others out in the form of aggressive outbursts, erratic decisions or depression.

3. Let Go – For Curiosity’s Sake

It’s difficult to notice what is really going on when we’re fixed on our agenda or feel entitled to a particular outcome. We push for what we want rather than engaging with what is. We get caught up in catastrophic reactions and start to behave defensively. Our reactions dominate our thinking. Often we regard the things that disturb as a personal affront rather than part of life.

Some leaders fight or deny their circumstances longer than others, but eventually a time comes when we realise we face a greater challenge than we anticipated or our approach is not working. When we let go we can become curious about what has happened and even our part in it.

4. Retain Your Humility

Harvard University Professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, argues that humility fuels resilience. Ironically, leaders with humility are less likely to be broken by the powerful business, social and political forces acting on leaders. They have a human scale sense of what is possible and how long change takes. They are less inclined to take resistance personally and are able to work skilfully with detours and delays.

Having humility brings an acceptance of our humanity. It supports us to become more compassionate toward ourselves and those around us. Humility cultivates an attitude in teams that ‘we’re all in this together’ avoiding toxic cultures of finger pointing and blame. It helps us to learn from our experience.

5. Recalibrate

Facing knocks and setbacks requires that we recalibrate. We need to be able to assess what happened in order to engage with the events, people or forces that Steven Snyder describes as throwing us off balance.

After reconnecting with my intent, I find it helpful to ask myself where I went off-course. What distracted me? Where did I get hooked?

Once again humility helps us to change course. Share your learnings and bring others with you on the journey.

6. Appreciate The Experience

With luck you will begin to make adversity work for you. You will see your failings and defeats in one situation as the seeds of future ease and success.


When has your resilience been tested lately?

What were you trying to achieve? What were your deepest intentions?

What was most difficult or confronting for you? What meaning did you make of your situation?

Where do you need to open up to new possibilities? What do you need to let go of?

What is valuable about this experience?

How might these learnings pave the way to future fulfilment or success?

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