Resilient Leadership – Why it Matters

resilient leadership

Over the last few years, we’ve endured fever, fires and floods. On a sunnier note, we’ve also witnessed inspiring, deeply touching tales of tenacity, fortitude and fightback – that rugged resilience to weathering adverse extremes that epitomises the Australian spirit. It has also underscored how critical preserving, restoring and strengthening our resilience at work, at home and in our communities is, to over-coming setbacks and remaining mentally fit and functional

1. Resilient Leadership Rising

More than ever, many of us undoubtedly look to our leaders to model qualities like focus, calm, emotional balance, and most of all, resilience. And building it, both individually and as a team, is critical to coping with the increasingly stressful, ever-busier, often turbulent, and sometimes toxic, work landscapes we inhabit.

As Harvard Business School’s Nancy Koehn says: “Resilience is the capacity to not only endure great challenges, but get stronger in the midst of them…it’s an extraordinarily important capability because we live in a nonstop crisis world – one calamity, one emergency, one unexpected, often difficult, surprise after another like waves breaking on the shore…”

As a leader, you act as an emotional caretaker for your team’s well-being. They look to you to help them stay buoyant, stress-resistant, emotionally steady, and to support them in tough times that test our stress and anxiety levels.

  • Resilience is one of the critically defining factors for effective leadership. 
  • Recent research shows that from an array of different leader traits, those who rate high on resilience are seen overall as more effective leaders by their managers, peers and teams.
  • Role-modelling resilience may be the most vital trait you can demonstrate as a leader.
  • You need to nurture it in yourself first to sustain your energy levels and focus under pressure, adapt to disruptive change, overcome hurdles and setbacks – and then help teams do the same.

The real test of resilient leaders is not how they perform during good times. It’s how they demonstrate emotional balance, tenacity, perseverance and resolve in trying times.

Faced with setbacks or adversity, resilient leaders regain composure rapidly, find ways to move past obstacles rather then get bogged down by them, and can actually grow stronger as a result. And as leaders become more robust, resilient and emotionally-balanced, teams may become more positive, focused, productive, less rattled and more stress resistant. It’s looks like resilience also counts as a factor in organisation success.

2. Resilient Leader Attributes

resilience word picture

The attributes applied to describe what resilient leadership is are broad-ranging – a bit rubbery and interchangeable with other leadership approaches. For example, things we’d associate with authentic leadership, relational leadership, and courageous or compassionate leadership, all get roped into the service of defining resilient leadership

I personally don’t have a problem with this kind of overlap. I think it shows that leadership is organic and integrates many different attributes traits and actions in people who are on the ground doing it. Developing as a leader it seems to me, is taking what works or is serviceable for you from a range of different leader constructs and approaches and incorporating them into what you do.

This PREARS diagram (pronounced ‘prayers’) shows 6 attributes of resilient leaders I think are most central. Here’s what each letter in PREARS stands for:

P = Purpose and Positivity: Resilient leaders maintain a positive mindset and a clear focus on purpose that inspires and motivates. They also need to steer others with purpose, which calls for persistence, courage, conviction and determination.

“Having a clear purpose or direction in life and a sense that life has meaning has been linked with faster recovery from negative events and even with longer life” says Richard Davidson of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

PREARS Diagram

R = Reinforce and Restore: – is about resilient leaders keeping an eye on what they can do to strengthen, retain and refresh reserves of resilience in themselves and their teams, and rebuild it if they notice reserves are depleted after an incident or a series of different adverse events.

E = Emotional Endurance: Resilient leaders stay emotionally balanced and have the endurance to manage and reduce disruptive emotions in themselves and others. This means they’re emotionally intelligent, self-reliant and self-managing. They have a strong internal locus of control – meaning they believe they determine their own destiny by what they do and how they respond to challenging situations, not the situations themselves. It’s also about how we tend to think about a setback or challenge…

agile stretch

A = Adaptable and Agile: Resilient leaders are adaptable and mentally agile – able to change to cope with reversals and disruptions and to bend rather than break. They don’t focus on rigidity and order – they focus on fluidity and flexibility.

This means helping their teams prepare for and work through change and uncertainty. 

They can see alternatives and listen to their team’s perspectives too. Also inherent in adaptability is a good dash of pragmatism. Resilient leaders don’t get stuck and ruminate on what they can’t do anything about. They look at what they can influence and take practical steps to do that.

Tough, steadfast, fixedly determined are traits we relate to resilience. But a key resilience skill is also allowing yourself sometimes to be moulded and shaped by adverse events, pivot in a new direction and take a new path.

R = Resonant Relationships: Resilient leaders are approachable, caring and connective so teams feel safe, understood, valued and acknowledged. They build strong, positive relationships with people they lead and keep up those connections. This shores up resilience because connections and cohesion are strong medicine for resisting pressure and stress. This also rests on emotional as well as social intelligence.

S = Support and Sustain: Forging strong connections which we’ve already mentioned, is so important for support and sustaining individuals and teams. This is enabled by another emotional intelligence faculty, namely empathy.

Resilient leaders stay mindful and focused through challenging times.  They also keep an eye out for what they can do to stem

resilience-drain and sustain their current levels of resilience – to plug holes in any leaky resilience buckets.

Instituting wellness routines like everyday mindful exercises and maintaining a positive emotional outlook by resisting excessive worry, rumination and self-sabotaging behaviour can all serve to dampen down disturbances and bodily alarms.

Resilience is also closely allied to how much energy and focus we can sustain. 

Low & High Energy Teams

Teams with more reserves of resilience, feel energised, friendly, happy, enthused, interested and focused. They’re better able to handle stress and emotionally self-manage.

Others are what I call ‘3-D Teams’ – Disinterested, Demotivated and Disengaged. In teams with low energy and resilience, there’s an ‘I don’t care’, ‘I don’t-want-to-be-here’ mindset that saps vitality, drains interest and enthusiasm, punctures productivity and renders us more burn-out prone

Finally, there’s another ubiquitous and much talked-about quality these days, that by extension has an enriching effect on resilience. It’s compassion. Cultivating compassion for both self and others according to research mentioned by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, shows how compassion practices increase positive emotions, create positive work relationships, increase happiness and well-being and decrease stress. If that’s the half-of-it, it can’t be ignored.

3. What Resilient Leaders Bring

In the end, resilience is not a list of attribute or behaviour traits. It’s what leaders do in action that counts – what they resolve to practise on a regular basis.

So what do leaders who are resilient, bring to the table in terms of actions and endowments they make to their teams and organisations?

1. Resilient leaders teach the lesson that without hardship nothing is learned. They model leading through good and bad. The good times give rise to achievement, success and celebration that succour team spirit.

But the bad means weathering the storm and emerging out the other end, not unscathed, but stronger as a leader and more cohesive and supportive as a team. 

So, welcome hard times with open arms as a chance to grow yourself and the resiliency you need for sustaining success as a leader.

2. Resilient leaders relish the struggle and the challenge. They teach teams that opportunity often comes wrapped with adversity and struggle. It’s often only when people rise to the challenges, that they exceed their limits and discover new abilities and inner resources they didn’t know they had. We’re better equipped to handle the next challenges that comes our way.

3. Resilient leaders know others are watching their actions in a crisis. The way you approach a situation, how you compose, comport and acquit yourself, how you talk, decide and act all serve as a model for the people that surround you.

  • If you act like an autocrat, panic, vacillate, lose emotional balance, or stay in your resilience zone, and act in measured, decisive but collaborative ways – that’s what people will learn.
  • It’s also in hard times that you get a chance to show your metal and integrity – to do what is right, even if no one is looking.
Churchill beside Spitfire

Renowned second world war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill may never have sat inside a spitfire during the Battle of Britain. But as a leader he spat-enough-fire in his famous never-give-up-never-surrender speeches to inspire determination, sacrifice and the fighting spirit of the British people to resist invasion at all costs.

4. Resilient leaders put purpose back on the table. During hardships, you put people back in touch with purpose and what really matters which remains a perennial beacon of inspiration, motivation, energy and focus that can help them keep going at the same time as resisting stress and burnout. The actions resilient leaders model may help to keep up the stamins of a team – to help them persist, push-through and achieve.

5. Resilient leaders learn from your failures. Resilient leaders also show teams that you learn a lot from adverse times – that failure can frequently be a more effective teacher than success.

  • There are so many lessons to be learned from mistakes, stuff-ups, reversals and failures if you can overcome your defensiveness and reluctance, face up to your vulnerabilities and sit down and really reflect on them without getting too upset.
  • As Thomas Edison expounds in this collation of his sayings: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time. I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

3. What Resilient Leaders Bring

Resilience is an emotional state that has a lot to do with wellbeing, resisting stress, team performance, adaptability and vitality. It isn’t something you’re born with or not. It’s an attribute we all have to different degrees and some of us have more of it than others at different times in our lives. But one thing’s for sure. It’s honed by facing up to adversity and tempered in the crucible of life’s troubles and torments.

This resonates with Rich Fernandez’s HBR article on 5 Ways to Boost Your Resilience, where he observes that: “The most resilient teams aren’t the ones that don’t fail, but ones that fail, learn and thrive because of it. Being challenged, sometimes severely, is part of what activates resilience as a skill set.”

The good news is that resilience skills can be learned, restored and strengthened with practice. It’s a set of skills, practices and mental attitudes we can all learn to cultivate more consistently.

My Resilient Leadership and Building Resilience at Work clinics (live and online) and unique self-coaching guide have tons of tips and tools on how to re-charge yourself and also boost your team’s reserves of resilience to buttress wellbeing, resist stress and remain more emotionally-balanced, fit and functional. The clinics are especially useful for leaders who want a few readily applicable tools to try out with teams to keep resilience reservoirs topped-up and take setbacks in your stride.

See our on-line course calendar for dates our public clinics coming up in your area. And if you’ve a group of 10 or more, we’re happy to come to you. Enquire online or call Bill Cropper direct to discuss individual coaching or to make arrangements for an in-house clinic at a venue of your choice.

More on Building Resilience including Trauma 1st-Aid Self-Help & Support Training on-line at

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