Resilience: the be-all and end-all remedy?


Resilience is not a new concept and most of us will have heard of it, but more and more it is being associated with performance in a business setting.  Most notably it is being touted as one of the key underpinning factors to long term effective leadership.  In fact, you do well these days to read articles around leadership and not find yourself learning about resilience.  So, is resilience the be-all and end-all remedy to coping with the uncertainties of our times – and to being a good leader?

What is resilience?

Resilience originates from the Latin word: resilire, meaning to spring back or rebound.  If you ask people to discuss resilient role models a theme very quickly emerges in terms of the characteristics shared by resilience people.  Very often the concept of recovering from setbacks is mentioned – a ‘bounceback-ability’, followed by terms such as enduring, sustaining, ploughing on in the face of adversity.  Quite often people describe resilient individuals as being ‘bulletproof’.

I would, however, argue that in the case of leadership that this description often overlooks the emotional intelligence required to be resilient as a leader – in some ways this suggests the individual should be ’emotionless’ and disengage with their colleagues.  In fact, in order to develop resilience as a leader, an individual needs to remain vulnerable enough to feel for and with others – they can’t have such a tough exterior that they lack sensitivity.  They need to be strong enough to live with uncertainty and ambiguity and learn to grow, not crumble, through adversity.  Resilience for a leader extends much further than the individual’s own personality and requires them to engage with those around them to a considerable extent.

In order to be resilient as a leader, an individual needs to be able to sustain their energy levels under pressure and cope with unexpected change; bounce back from setbacks and overcome difficulties WITHOUT engaging in destructive and detached behaviour.

It’s the last bit of this sentence that I believe to be the hardest aspect of resilience – the ability of an individual to continue to apply their strengths, whilst simultaneously managing their weaknesses, all whilst operating in a stressful environment.

Why is it so hard to be resilient?

Essentially, humans have evolved with a negativity bias.  Our awareness of danger has been a critical survival skill that has served us well through our evolution, but in 2016 is surplus to requirement in much of our day to day lives.  As a result of this we process negative information faster and more thoroughly than positive information – at a ratio of approximately 5 to 1 which is a fairly hefty imbalance.  So as individuals, in order to overcome this negativity bias, we need to learn how to keep negative emotions in check by amplifying our positive emotions.  We need to attend to the information that is going to help us maintain the stability of our personality.

Resilient people have mastered an emotional balance; meaning, they recognize the importance of both managing negative emotions but also cultivating positive emotions.   Resilient people understand how to use positive emotions to rebound from, and find positive meaning in, stressful situations they may encounter.

How do we develop resilience?

We are not born resilient.  We don’t have fixed levels of resilience in the same way that by adulthood we have relatively stable levels of various personality traits.  Resilience is something that can be developed in everyone – but it is a hard concept to work on and often involves facing the ugly truth about our inner personalities and acknowledging the disruptive ways in which we behave when we are under stress.  Resilience isn’t something that can be taught in a classroom easily either – we need to learn the coping strategies for our own personalities in order to develop that ‘bounceback-ability’.  That needs a certain amount of self-reflection.

What coping mechanisms do you rely on and are they the most effective ones?  Developing resilience comes from constructing coping strategies that you can use in different situations that avoid you overplaying your strengths.  Essentially, learning to manage the risk factors that undermine you as an individual.  Learning how you are likely to respond in times of stress will improve your emotional intelligence, allowing you to regulate behaviour, helping to build a more resilient foundation.

A good starting point to help develop self-awareness is through tools such as psychometric personality questionnaires and 360 feedback sessions.  Of particular use are those tools which focus on the ‘dark side’ of our personality – how we are likely to respond under pressure.

The be-all and end-all remedy?

Given the fact that resilience can be developed and is a factor that can fluctuate a considerable amount on a daily basis, it’s well worth us spending a fair bit of time focusing on improving our levels of resilience.  There are many other attributes that are important for good leadership and resilience is only one of those factors, but it could be argued that much of an effective leadership style could fall flat on its face if we can’t maintain our levels of resilience.  Resilience acts like a foundation.  But is it the be-all and end-all remedy?  I think our personalities and the environments we expose ourselves to are far too complex to summarise that one factor could be a solution to becoming an effective leader.  Yet, I would propose that individuals who spend time raising their self-awareness to understand their own coping mechanisms and develop alternative ones, will be able to self-regulate maladaptive behaviour far more effectively.  This heightened level of resilience is likely to enable an individual to play their other strengths to their full potential and on a more consistent basis.

If you would like to learn more about resilience in a leadership context, Lakeland Capabilities deliver a half day ‘Developing Leadership Capabilities‘ workshop which focuses on developing personal resilience.  We also offer a range of psychometrics which focus specifically on leadership development.

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