Once upon a time, resilience was the term used to describe someone who can bounce back from an unimaginable hardship or tragedy. In the modern business context, it refers to a leader’s ability to manage a 24/7 work cycle with global teams, rapid change and increasing scrutiny. Oh, and the occasional unimaginable hardship or tragedy!

Resilience is essential for leadership and the good news is that it’s a quality that can be learned, developed and improved at any stage of your career. Here’s how you can cultivate resilience for successful leadership.

Why is resilience important?

Psychological resilience is described as a range of psychological and behavioural capabilities that enable us to remain calm in a crisis, or to return to a pre-crisis state quickly with no long-term effects. In business, there can be any number of crises of varying degrees, and we often look to our leaders for guidance at such times.

Perhaps the most extreme example of the importance of resilience can be seen in the actions of investment bank Morgan Stanley on September 11, 2001. After the1993 bombing of the World Trade Center (of which it was the largest tenant), Morgan Stanley introduced fire drills that were carried out with military precision. So, when the first plane hit the north tower in the September 11 terrorist attacks, Morgan Stanley began evacuating one minute later, even though they were in the south tower. The head of security used a megaphone to remind staff to remain calm and remember their training as they exited in an orderly fashion. When the second plane hit the south tower 15 minutes later, the 22 floors of Morgan Stanley’s offices were almost empty.

The investment bank had responded to the earlier crisis in 1993 with calm determination to be ready for the next crisis. Demonstrating resilience from the top down, the organisation instilled its staff with a composed and quiet resilience that would save the lives of around 2700 people on that terrible day in 2001.

Resilience in teams

Of course, resilience is about much more than surviving something as extreme as a terrorist attack. A survey in the UK revealed that the thing that drained resilience more than anything else was “managing difficult people or office politics at work.”

The next biggest impact on resilience was overwork and personal criticism. So rather than one catastrophic event, it’s these daily incidental occurrences that wear employees down.

A high-performance team embraces the organisation’s vision and has a strong purpose in realising that vision. Effective leadership models a positive corporate culture that builds a healthy community around that common cause. Without a positive culture, teams fear the challenge of managing difficult people or office politics at work. This creates a negative feedback loop that erodes resilience and business goals.

Resilience in organisations

Before the arrival of digital photography, Kodak convinced us that a photograph was actually a Kodak Moment. Until we all had an iPhone or a Galaxy in our pocket, we wouldn’t consider anything other than a candy bar sized Nokia or a Motorola flip phone. These former industry giants are now but shadows of their former selves. Technology disruption has tested the resilience of many organisations and too many of them have fallen short.

One of the greatest challenges for organisations has been change – change in the desires of customers, change of governments and change of organisational leadership. In the modern business context, change is not only inevitable, but it’s also occurring at an increasingly rapid pace. The resilient organisation must be constantly evolving, learning and preparing for the next change that is coming around the corner.

How to cultivate resilience

Regardless of your personal experience or current circumstances, resilience is a quality that can be learned. Observing these key steps will help to increase your resilience, no matter how much you have.

1. Be ready for change

Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus declared that ‘life is flux’ – or in other words the only constant in life is change. And he was right – over 2 millennia later, the harbour town he called home has silted up and the coast is now 4 kilometres away. You definitely won’t have to wait that long for change in the modern business world!

Change can come in many forms –from macro events like Brexit to micro-changes in the software you use, your team members or even your favourite coffee shop. To be ready for change you must exchange shock for presence of mind. Keep up with the news, listen to your colleagues and take an active interest in what is happening outside of your area of focus. You won’t necessarily be able to predict change, but you’ll be ready when it arrives.

2. Prepare yourself mentally

The US Military has a training program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness that includes Master Resilience training. They focus on an ABCD model where C is the emotional consequence of an event. The model teaches them that C doesn’t come from the A of Adversity, but the B of our Beliefs about Adversity. 

Adversity may arise if your presentation to a meeting doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped. You might think “I’m a failure” which is your belief about the adversity, but the emotional consequence is that you’re unpleasant to your team for the rest of the day. The ABCD model teaches us to separate B from C and focus on D – to dispel unrealistic beliefs about adversity. Mental preparation like this will reinforce your resilience.

3. Prepare yourself physically

Have you ever had an experience that knocked the wind out of your sails? Or maybe you’ve had one of those stressful days where the heart races, you get a little bit sweaty and you go home feeling like you’ve run a marathon. Regular physical exercise can give you the resilience to bounce back from both of these circumstances.

When we exercise, the body suppresses stress hormones like cortisol and releases the feel-good chemicals serotonin and endorphins. And when we exercise more, we lower our physiological reactivity to stress – which is also known as building resilience. Don’t worry, you don’t need to start running marathons (although that’s an enviable goal), just get out for a walk every day and try to get to the gym once a week.

Learn more about the online Master of Leadership, our innovative Professional Practice degree where you can use your experience to gain a master’s degree. Call our enrolment team on 1300 043 524.