There are differing ideas on the nature of resilience. A good place to start might be with Connor and Davidson’s definition, being to “thrive in the face of adversity”, but this relates to adversity encountered as an individual, as does their assessment tool. Leadership resilience is not only to thrive on one’s own, but as a leadership influence within, and for, a team. That is a significant difference – responding to adversity in a way that enables not only oneself, but the whole team to “thrive”.
In understanding that definition, how might “thriving” be quantified? Certainly, achievements and outcomes are useful measures, but there’s more to thriving than meeting one-off success-criteria. Thriving as a team in the face of uncertainty, adversity and setbacks includes, in line with our neurobiological approach, enhancement of physical well-being and fulfilment, using and building on skills, working together and contributing individually. Leadership resilience, as a practice, relates to success in the face of adversity now in ways that enhance capacity for the leader and the team repeatedly doing so, with implications for neurally-based fulfilment & self-development. If not, the word “thriving” would have been replaced by “coping” or “overcoming”. Thriving is a different concept entirely from one-off wins, endurance or survival.
From a neurobiological/ behavioural perspective, leadership resilience requires both capacity and motivation. Motivation is described elsewhere and is inherent as a core function of resilience. Capacity arises from resources that enable leadership resilience, and then the domains of practice that typify it. Further, thriving as a leader, both in the moment and in the future, is likely to be enhanced by a positively-oriented “approach” schema (cognitive-friendly) that looks for opportunity and possibility, rather than simply drawing on negative emotions through “avoidance” responses to feeling threatened by the prospect of loss.
Positivity and negativity not only affect neural processes and capacity in individuals, they “infect” others in the group. The more powerful and influential a figure is, the more likely others are to absorb their emotions, and the more likely there are to adopt and mimic that response pattern. Resilience responses by leaders are, without doubt, strong modelling behaviours that affect people practically and emotionally.
Drawing on the neuroscience, resilience is linked directly to, and is a function of, the motivation system, most notably the self-regulation function. For self-regulation to be possible over extended periods of time in times or high stress and responsibility, a platform of emotional and cognitive reserve must exist. The core elements of this prerequisite are described here as “enablers”, and they are listed below.
Enablers of Leadership Resilience
Health & Lifestyle: Whilst many people can perform highly resilient & effective leadership acts despite poor health or fitness, it is unlikely that they will be able to continually think & behave with focus, control & sustained energy under pressure without good physical and psychological health, including diet, exercise & sleep.
Self-Management: Linked to self-regulation in both EQ (emotional intelligence) & motivation neuroscience, the ability to sense, manage & harness one’s own emotions in regulating behaviour & interacting with others is crucial for gaining the support, cooperation & followship of others. Even for those in non-leadership roles, self-management is important for maintaining task focus & effort under pressure & despite setbacks.
Engaging Others: Linked to EQ (empathy, sensing, influence), interpersonal neurobiology & basic motivational needs, the ability to connect & engage with others is crucial for collaboration, including team initiative & collective effort. Those who use power or “logic” alone are becoming increasingly ineffective in today’s innovative & highly competitive environments.
Coherence: Linked closely to underlying fulfilment of basic motivational needs (congruence) and personal values (consistency), individuals who feel settled and secure in themselves, their relationships and their social place are likely to experience generally higher levels of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, reducing base stress, helping minimise avoidance responses, enhancing concentration, facilitating problem-solving and collaboration, raising mood and freeing up emotional reserves. Coherence is a largely unacknowledged key neurobiological foundation for leadership resilience.
In practice, resilience arises from a combination of stress response habits that moderate the more instinctive and reactive fight/flight responses. The word “habits” is used here, as the synaptic pathways that underpin helpful stress responses need to be created (synaptogenesis) and strengthened (myelinogenesis) to the extent that they become a default response that is more influential in the heat of the moment than those triggered by fear. Just as this is a core neural development for expert martial artists so that they retain calm, focus, judgement and control in physical combat, it serves the same purpose, with the same general affects, for resilient leaders in clear thinking, behavioural and relationship management. The core domains of behavioural habits for resilient leadership in dealing with uncertainty, complexity and whole-of-team engagement, in addition to other preferred management habits identified in neuromanagement, are listed below:
Domains of Leadership Resilience
Collaboration: For individuals, collaboration, as it pertains to resilience, favours personal support networks & relationships. In leadership, it also includes gaining information, ideas & feedback around initiatives as well as team commitment to persevere. Leaders who score low in collaboration are more likely to believe in their own superior intellect, be dictatorial & assume effort & compliance from awed followers. High collaboration scores are likely to indicate broad team buy-in in both problem-solving, effort & outcomes. Collaboration scores may be less relevant for self-directed, independent & non-leadership roles where high efficacy may at times be more useful.
Vision: Authentic resilience for leaders requires a belief in purpose & commitment beyond task execution. Vision links resilience to identity, purpose & values, inspiring self & others at intrinsic, energising & collective levels of engagement. Sharing & living an inspiring vision has been repeatedly identified by followers over decades of highly reputable surveys (e.g. Kouzes & Posner) as the commonly most desirable leadership trait, orienting leaders & followers alike in shared beliefs, values & visions that guide goal-directed motivation & consequent action choices, including under pressure.
Tenacity: The domain most readily associated with resilience, in practice, is sticking to challenges no matter how difficult & despite all setbacks. This assessment also recognises that there comes a time when individual tenacity comes at a cost to the team or perhaps even rationally justifiable allocation of effort, and so extreme tenacity is identified as less desirable in a leader than high or very high range scores. Where an environment requires the collective support of others (e.g. employees, customers, other stakeholders) within a sensitive social context, a high or moderate range score might be more appropriate than a very high range score as it suggests greater flexibility & patience, & perhaps less drive for hard outcomes.
Reasoning: Under stress, the brain experiences reductions in blood flow to the PFC – the “smartest” regions associated with “executive function”. In this situation, individuals are less capable of thinking as rationally or creatively, or indeed of emotional management or even sensing they are less capable. Self-management assists in sensing & down-regulating (with practice) this natural response. Unfortunately, most individuals, including those in leadership roles, double-down under pressure, protecting their positions & resisting the ideas & perspectives of others. A high reasoning score suggests that, under pressure, a leader is more likely to practice habits associated with preserving emotional control, rationality & creative problem-solving.
Efficacy: Linked to confidence, skill & autonomy, efficacy is the self-belief in one’s own ability to succeed despite setbacks, incomplete information, competition & the sheer size & amount of challenges. Crucial for those facing social & practical obstacles – for example in driving change, high-value sales & highly independent and autonomous roles. For those whose leadership is more of others than self, extreme efficacy may result in not trusting, involving or including the support, wisdom & energy of others.
Is Leadership Resilience a one-size-fits-all concept?
There are various biases that may be called upon in different contexts. For example, if problems are highly complex and facts uncertain, collaboration is likely to be highly useful to access the ideas, experience and knowledge of everyone on the team – and even some outside it. There are times where the solution isn’t as complex and the key to success is perseverance – so tenacity might count for more. Notwithstanding variations, due to its direct relationship with the neurobiological motivational system and the necessary interactions with others, the core enablers and domains identified above are likely to apply to most situations requiring sustained effort, complex problem-solving and teamwork.
There is however room for considering the extent to which leadership is about leading others versus leading self. A measure of efficacy in comparison to collaboration can indicate whether an individual takes more of a solo approach, or a consultative team-based approach. This is a useful distinction where adversity may need to be overcome in highly autonomous roles or locations – for example sales executives or those working alone in remote areas. Strictly speaking this is not quite so much about leadership resilience, but it has been useful in understanding how some individuals succeed managing and leading themselves in those situations. In any case, even as a highly collaborative leader, personal efficacy, being self-belief and willingness to hold oneself accountable, is highly desirable for any role, especially leadership.
Leadership resilience is an essential attribute for not only facing and overcoming sustained and repeated adversity as a team, but for thriving in it. For lifting to one’s best – and perhaps to new bests. For maintaining focus, cognitive capacity and effort. For strengthening relationships, not simply using them. For achievement, success and personal growth. And, crucially, for doing those things in ways that enhance fulfilment, well-being and the capacity to do it all over again.
If you’d like to learn about how to improve the capacity and develop the habits for resilience in your leadership team, talk to us about our exclusive neurobiologically-grounded Leadership Resilience Training modules and Leadership Resilience Coaching.