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The Resilience Factor in Leadership

The Resilience Factor in Leadership

Good leaders are resilient. They bounce back quicker from setbacks or adversity, and keep the team moving in the right direction. Resiliency is sometimes seen as the ability to cope with stress and life’s challenges, and to draw upon the emotional reserves that have been built up for the tough times.

Is resiliency an individual trait, or is it learned behavior? Most recent research shows that resiliency is a process that is the result of individuals interacting with their environments and the processes that promote well-being. Lessons taught in families, schools, and spiritual communities, help build a person’s skills to not only cope with stressful situations, but to recover quicker from adversity.

The American Psychological Association has discovered that several factors are found to modify the negative effects of adverse life situations. Strong relationships at home and work that provide care and support, create trust, and offer encouragement, are critical to developing resiliency. Additional factors are also associated with resilience, like the capacity to make realistic plans, having self-confidence and a positive self-image, developing communication skills and the capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

Why is resilience so important in leadership?

So why is this important in today’s world and more specifically in today’s business environment?  There are several things to consider as we look at resilience. Research by Sidney Finkelstein, “Why Smart Executives Fail,” indicates that companies that lack the ability to adapt in the face of competition and shifting market cease to exist.  As the world becomes more digital, we have lots of industries that have failed to deal quickly enough to market realities, including newspapers, music and books.

What causes a company’s inability to adapt, to be flexible, and to bend?  Often leaders don’t make the right decisions when times get tough.  Jim Collins in his book on “How the Mighty Fall” identifies resilience as one of the key factors in a leader’s skill set.  Do we see what is happening around us as an opportunity to learn, listen, predict and grow or do we see new market and societal realities as a threat, a time to retreat, and just do the same thing, only harder?

How can leaders build their resiliency skills?

Unfortunately there is no class in business programs called Resiliency 101.  Families, schools, business and life give us many opportunities to continually develop coping skills and resilience.  A colleague who taught himself a good lesson in resiliency gave the example of freezing during a presentation while in a national team competition for MBA students.  He did poorly, and it affected the outcome for the team.  Initially he was devastated and struggled to overcome feelings of inadequacy.  A few years later, as an international consultant, he had to give another important presentation and instead of caving to the memories that plagued him, he did an outstanding job on the presentation.  When asked how he overcame those strong memories of failure, he talked about his journey of personal self-discovery and how he learned to handle challenges with a broader perspective.  For this particular presentation, he made sure that he prepared well and took care of himself, by getting enough sleep, exercising and eating well, which helped keep him in balance and nurture a positive outlook to handle the presentation with a confidence that he had worked hard to build.

Being aware and consciously working through ways to cope with stress builds resilience. Strong leaders are very self-aware in general, and find ways to continue to build their resiliency skills. Coaching is a resource that can help leaders assess their ability to bounce back and adapt at work, and to continue to build the support needed to tackle the professional and personal challenges we all face in life.

This article was co-written by Mary Shippy and Leanne Smullen of Align Leadership.

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About Mary Shippy

Mary Shippy, Ph.D. is a global leadership consultant with expertise in organizational development, leadership facilitation and is a senior executive coach. She has coached the senior leaders including the “C” suite and VP’s within a variety of industries. Mary can be contacted at

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  1. Judith KrichefskiAugust 3, 2012 at 8:23 am

    In your article you say that there is no class in business resiliency. I have been training and coaching in Mental Toughness which incorporates resilience for the last 4 years. the learning has to be through practise of behavioural techniques but we have a psychometric test which measures the Mental Toughness of an individual and generates several reports including an assessment report. n This helps individuals understand what is stopping them from being resilients. We then have a specific programme for development of Mental Toughness. Many organisations including the NHS and the Probation Service have found this to have great impact with their executives in an environment of uncertainty, change and increasing pressure and stress.
    We help leaders and managers to develop a positive mind-set and a can-do attitude and to start to thrive on challenge!

    • Mary ShippytOctober 10, 2012 at 10:28 pm

      Judith, I believe that we are on the same page regarding resiliency. Yes you can use behavioral techniques and test to measure Mental Toughness – these reports help people develop personal awareness. This understanding helps individuals become aware of what might get in the way and I suspect that you then help individuals create a path forward. It seems as if your training incorporates those items of awareness and coaching that we advocate in building resilience in individuals.

      In our research the business programs we looked at (Degrees in Business Management) did not offer any course work on resilience. Even in leadership course work, this character development area was not mentioned. In the company training programs we reviewed we did not find courses on resilience. What we did find was that character development, which is apart of the resilience factor, often gets talked about and encouraged through more individualized processes such as leadership training, mentor ship and coaching.

  2. Ralph IllickAugust 7, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    While I agree very much with the substance of this article, I wonder why the author glaringly omits two obvious sources of the type of training that result in resiliency. Do any of us wonder for a moment whether America’s newest darling Gabby Douglas will be resilient when she matures to adulthood and enters the corporate world? I am certain that she will accept no excuses from herself or her peers. When she falters, she will sure as Hell get right up and get right back at it. Likewise, do any of us believe that a little business world setback would overwhelm a Navy-trained SEAL? Of course not! Our personalities are forged by our experiences, and we can all smell, taste, feel and touch the power of a resilient leader just by sharing experiences with them.

    And yes, I’m biased by many years of high-level athletic competition. My greatest lessons came from humbling defeats, and my greatest rewards from sharing hard-fought and well-earned victories with teammates.

    Never underestimate the heart of a champion- Rudy Tomjonovich

  3. HELEN TURIERMay 10, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Great article, its always good to raise awareness of resilience. I do think though that a point that is missed here is that resiliency levels can fluctuate.
    For example being connected and supported is part of being resilient, it is the C in my BO.U.N.C.E. Model of resiliency, but a few years ago my relationship broke down 3 months after my father died and then my best friend died less than 6 months later. In the space of 1 year i’d lost 3 of my key support team. Now i’m a pretty resilient person after all i’ve gone from being on social welfare with 3 children under 3 years after my alcoholic husband left to getting myself off social welfare and onto the board of 2 companies within 5 years. So i knew that I was resilient and a great leader. But as a result of losing my key support system my resiliency weakened. I’d also been driving myself pretty hard and not nurturing myself , the N of B.OU.N.C.E.
    Once i’d given myself a ‘check up from the neck up’ using my model I was able to see what I needed to do to get back on track.
    When i work with my clients using my model we acknowledge that our resiliency can fluctuate and that it needs to be kept in shape just like an athlete keeps their muscles on shape. If you neglect it it will weaken. Hence using B.O.U.N.C.E as part of the ‘check up from the neck up’

    Keep posting great articles. I love following them.

  4. Dr. Jon WarnerJune 3, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks for your kind words or support and for pointing me in the direction of your B.O.U.N.C.E model.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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