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Resilience & Leadership

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

Resilience and leadership became very popular several years ago and remains topical today. Just search online, and many, many articles will be identified in seconds. Often, resilience is not understood clearly, and its importance to leadership is not always well defined.

What is resilience?

Resilience, in its simplest form, can be defined as the ability to succeed or thrive during adversity and it includes the capacity to bounce back or recover after a period of great challenge. Resilience, as a concept, grew out of the literature on child development. Psychologists wished to understand why some children who experience abuse, neglect or terrible life circumstances come through the experience apparently unscathed, while others are damaged by their experiences. Researchers defined the ability that some children seemed to have as resilience, and they identified resilience as being made up of three distinct components:

  1. Personal resilience - this is the individual ability or inner resources that we can draw upon during difficult times in order to survive and even thrive.

  2. Social resilience – this refers to the immediate relationships that we have around us, and that support us and enable us to succeed during difficult times.

  3. Institutional resilience – the wider structures, systems, processes and culture that surrounds us and which can provide support during times of challenge or difficulty.

The threefold model of resilience has been applied to new settings and contexts, yet in leadership, we still focus on personal resilience. Personal resilience is important, but it also can be eroded if relied upon as the only source of resilience. People still need social and institutional resilience to scaffold and support their personal resilience and to help prevent that being eroded completely.

  1. Personal Resilience – refers to an individual's resources to keep going during times of stress. This is a reserve of energy that you can draw upon and use when needed. It is important to ensure that this reserve tank is kept topped up and there are some simple ways to replenish this reserve. Ensure you get enough quality sleep. Sleep is the best way to top up our energy and keep us healthy and able to perform. Take time off – ensure you get enough breaks during the day and plan holidays and time away. Having time away from work and things that can drain our energy is important to allow us to recharge fully. Create thinking and reflection time and use that time to focus on positive experiences and thoughts. Positive emotional experiences help to recharge our energy. We are energetic beings, and we are very good at expending our energy in our work and life – we also need to put an equal amount of time into restoring that energy to ensure that we have reserves and can be resilient when needed.

  2. Social resilience - social resilience in the context of organisations and leadership refers to an individual’s direct relationships in work: peers, colleagues, line managers and direct reports. It is important to have supportive and trusting relations with those with whom you work. Having people that you believe you can rely upon and who will provide support when required. Hence, it is important to build relationships at work and to invest time and energy in creating supportive and collaborative teams. Listen to your colleagues, be supportive of them and don’t be afraid to share and ask them to listen when needed. A key to gaining trusting relationships is sharing, being open and allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

  3. Institutional resilience in organisations is concerned with the wider organisational culture, structures and systems. Do these create a resilient climate in the organisation, do they support and facilitate personal resilience? Often when resilient organisations are considered people refer to long-term plans, higher income, increased profits, and higher rates of staff engagement. These are characteristics of resilient organisations, but these are outcomes and don't tell us how to build a resilient organisation. In working to build a resilient organisation think about how you create a culture of collaboration, teamwork and support. Consider your systems and processes – do they facilitate and enable employees to deliver their best with the required legal frameworks for your business? Does your structure create a positive atmosphere that supports progression and growth? Spending time getting these things right is important.

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