Assessing Leadership Resilience

Connor and Davidson described resilience as “thriving in the face of adversity”(1), developing a respected 5-factor measure of what they perceive that to be in practice. Their assessment (CD-RISC) explores 25 habitual responses that they connected with that definition and has been generally accepted as a reasonable basis upon which personal resilience can be measured despite self-acknowledged limitations.

Like so many other self-assessments, participants are asked to rate themselves on a typical 5-point sliding scale in response to questions relating to those attributes of resilient behaviour which, according to demographically-based research (2), may have contributed to biases where males reported higher overall resilience than females. This is a challenge for any type of sliding scale self-assessment, where mood, poor self-awareness or a preferred view of oneself can easily enable distortions.

This presented three areas of interest:

  • Does leadership resilience differ from personal resilience, and, if so, how?
  • Is there a neurobiological foundation for leadership resilience, and, if so, what is it likely to be?
  • Is there are reliable way of measuring leadership resilience from a neurobiological perspective via a self-assessment format?

Leadership Resilience Versus Personal Resilience

Four of the 25 CD-RISC questions relate to resilience not wholly arising from, existing within or affecting oneself. These relate to capacity for unpopular decisions, knowing where to turn to for help, close and secure relationships, and taking the lead in problem-solving. None relate to health, well-being, motivation or personal capacity, but some relate to emotional awareness and management, however indirectly. Overall, the CD-RISC appears to be quite well-focused on habits that support personal resilience, but not necessarily its underpinnings or how those habits might engage the knowledge, skills, followship and discretionary effort of others.

There are many definitions of leadership, each varying with how leadership can be seen, from uncompromising and directive at one end of the scale, to a role of coaching and enabling at the other. For our purposes, we refer to leadership in a workplace context where support, engagement, loyalty and discretionary effort are granted by others, and so leaders need to connect, enable and empower, rather than simply rely on hierarchical power. Neuroleadership places this in the context of the pursuit of coherence (consistency and congruence) as core neurobiological processes linked to motivation and fear response systems, and underpinned by health, well-being and personal capacity.

For individuals, resilience, according to the criteria of CD-RISC, mostly relates to confidence, self-belief and responses to setbacks – for example, the willingness to take unpopular decisions, as against the ability to gain the support of others where unpopular decisions are necessary – clearly, taking an unpopular decision where the support and discretionary effort of others is involved is unlikely to achieve much with coercive power. Similarly, taking the lead in problem-solving speaks of personal efficacy. Certainly, having close and secure relationships can help more than emotionally, but the question is aimed at drawing on the emotional strength and stability of others (linked to the basic need of connection), but not collaboration. Knowing where to turn to for help on the other hand is an ideal aid for collaboration, but there is no exploration of whether this is linked to taking the lead in problem-solving, as that would be supportive of leadership resilience. None of this is a criticism of the CD-RISC, simply a recognition that it is not aimed at behaviours known to be associated with leadership resilience in complex environments.

Consequently, a neurobiologically-based leadership resilience measure is likely to be quite different to personal resilience as measured by the CD-RISC. For example, on the assumption that power is not the most influential mechanism for engaging the efforts of others in overcoming adversity, leadership resilience will involve gaining the discretional support of others. As a core function of complex problem-solving in challenging and uncertain environments, leadership resilience is also likely to involve drawing on the expertise and ideas of others rather than simply being a lone problem-solver.

According to the extensive research of Kouzes and Posner(3), leadership requires sharing an inspiring vision, enabling others, modeling behaviour, challenging processes and emotional connection for and with followers. Therefore it might be assumed that resilient leadership that meets those demands will see them happening under the highest amounts of pressure, despite obstacles, setbacks and unknowns. While those things do not conflict with ideas around personal resilience, they add another level to it. The original question might then be adapted to explore personal resilience as a potential prerequisite to leadership resilience as, quite clearly, there are likely to be potentially quite different things.

A Neurobiological Foundation for Leadership Resilience

The brain is the primary physical home of the mind, emotions, behaviours and habits. It consists of many differentiated regions working together through synaptic connections to perform simple and complex functions. At any one time there are tens, hundreds or thousands of completing big or small, conscious and non-conscious, action-options available at any one time, so the three motivational systems (anticipation, valuation and regulation) work together to estimate which options are most likely to avoid loss and increase fulfilment, from survival (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, safety, sex) through to satisfying basic needs, as they relate to the workplace, of connection, empowerment, identity and task reward. Simultaneously, there is a need for internal sense-making, where neural activity between fast and slow, emotional and cognitive processes needs to feel complimentary. The pursuit of these two states, congruence and consistency respectively, described here as coherence, underpin intrinsic motivation, increasing the priority of action-choices (through their influence on the insula, part of the valuation system) linked with them.

There is also room for cognitive goal-setting in this process, but where a goal is set that doesn’t link to coherence (congruence and consistency together), it is not intrinsic, so lacks influence on the insula (which monitors internal feedback from brain and body), in turn being weighted comparatively poorly in the motivation valuation process. For this reason, goals that are intrinsically-linked (for example, wanting to achieve a quality standard linked to a preferred view of self (identity) as professional and expert rather than just to tick a box on a checklist) are more likely to carry the weight required for enhanced resilience through greater motivational weighting.

Resilience then, is associated with the motivational process, specifically in regulation, where non-rewarding actions are felt to detract from fulfilment in the moment, decreasing motivation to continue in favour of pursuing a feeling of gain through doing something else (or preventing further loss by not continuing that action). The quick fix for an itch, as an urgent impulse, is to scratch it. To stop oneself from scratching that itch, it is necessary that the comfort of the scratch is outweighed by a loss somewhere else – for example knowing that it will bleed and get infected. Importantly, the self-regulation network is likely to involve cognitive processing, notably in the prefrontal cortex. This means that enhancing prefrontal activity is likely to enable superior self-regulation, in turn requiring, to preserve blood flow to this region, emotional management, especially in moderating the fear response which diverts blood flow from this area.

As resilience in the workplace, this might involve sticking at a long, unrewarding and boring task with, at best, a delayed reward or avoidance of loss (for example, a task that it seems no-one inspects or appreciates). It might mean taking on a challenge that is risky and uncertain, or letting the team know of a major setback. It might mean having difficult conversations with non-performers, it might mean pushing one’s own physical limits of concentration, or it might mean making the next sales call after the last 10 were rejected. The common pattern is persistence despite low or no reward, or despite feelings of pain or loss, representing either a dopamine deficit alone, or of perhaps overcoming an avoidant cortisol-enhanced distressed response.

If the definition of resilience given by Connor and Davidson, being not only coping with adversity, but “thriving” in it, is used, resilience would need to go one step further, almost as an elevation of not only focus and energy, but of mood under extreme pressure and setbacks. Neurobiologically, the opposite is common, where setbacks, either linked to specific goals or need fulfilment, is likely to prompt a response, perhaps urgently, but one that is less likely to be “thriving” than “surviving”.

As a literal interpretation, their definition would require adversity to be viewed as an opportunity for gain rather than a likelihood of loss to facilitate the neurobiological responses that enable thriving – shifting from an avoidance schema (survival-related) to an approach schema (thriving-related). The higher the distress, the more unlikely this is simply due to the stress response’s diversion of blood from the prefrontal cortex when stress is around.

There is also a compounding effect. For example, where an individual feels relatively fulfilled, or that a given action choice would enhance fulfilment in, for example connection and identity, there may be more tolerance for situations where risk of loss in another domain of need exists – for example loss of feeling of competence (part of empowerment) through making an error. If, however, there are severe deficits in connection and identity, the risk of failure causing loss of fulfilment in another area is likely to be overwhelmingly distressing, creating a strong avoidance response such as absenteeism, refusal of responsibility or blame-shifting.

Because resilience requires sustained focus, effort and attention, there must be a physical side to it – for example being well enough, hydrated, well-rested and nourished. Those things are essential for maintaining PFC-influence, as is emotional management through self-awareness of emotions and responses, and, especially as a leader, the present emotions, capacities and needs of others.

Neurobiologically then, there is a direct link with the motivation system and resilience. This means that understanding and managing one’s motivations should enhance the capacity for resilience. Coherence also dictates that distress is affected by need fulfilment generally, as well as neural consistency between rational and emotional, personal and communal, moral and ethical in committing to, and remaining committed to, focused action choices. When the neurobiology of followers is also considered along with ideas like modelling, enabling and sharing an inspiring vision (rather than a problem-laden one), leadership resilience can be understood as an interpersonal neurobiological process.

Measuring Resilience Through Self-Assessment

Any self-assessment is limited by, at least, self-awareness, deficits in objectivity, and identity-protection through avoidance or presenting a preferred view of self (either to self or to impress others). To gain a more objective view, an assessment would therefore include feedback from those who spend the most time with the subject when the pressure is highest, perhaps in a 360 degree-type format. Much of the time this is impractical, and in any case a self-assessment would be a part of that ideal process, especially if it were to be part of a self-development program.

To remove much of the bias, it is helpful to ask questions that simply don’t use that scoring mechanism. This has been a technique we have successfully used in the NEURO-M Predictive Temperament Assessment and is core to its reliability despite expected participant bias. (We also intentionally use that mechanism in assessments where we are interested in bias!)

The NEURO-M Leadership Resilience Assessment takes this one step further, combining qualitative-type and quantitative-type questions to view perceptions at differing levels of objectivity and subjectivity. The results are as expected, with participants over-estimating their resilience by around 20%. (More specific analysis will be published at a later date.)

However, despite the improved reliability of using qualitative-type questions, and the inclusion of incorporated quantitative-type check-questions, there must always be some room for personal factors in how individuals create their own, for want of a better term, “resilience-schema”. For example, some people are highly independent, requiring less collaboration or emotional support than others. Some thrive on sheer determination, where others develop skills in self-awareness, mindfulness and reflective practice, whether or not these are linked with high resilience generally.

Therefore, while results of subjective assessments can provide useful comparisons and guidance compared to objective criteria, there must always be some room left for the individual. To rely on those exceptions however would be to bet against the odds.

  1. Connor KM, Davidson JRT. Development of a new resilience scale: The Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (CD-RISC). Depression and anxiety. 2003;18(2):76-82.
  2. Campbell-Sills L, Forde DR, Stein MB. Demographic and childhood environmental predictors of resilience in a community sample. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2009;43(12):1007-12.
  3. Kouzes MK, Posner BZ. The leadership challenge. 4 ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2007.