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  • Writer's pictureMatt Sitter

The Competitive Advantage of Resilient Leadership

“Organizations are only as resilient as their people,

and people are only as resilient as their leader.”

Leadership is fundamentally about the ability to influence, and the person who coined the above phrase clearly understood the impact and nuance of leadership influence.

In times of stress, especially, a leader’s ability to have positive influence is a function of his or her ability to “adapt, recover, grow, and develop from significant adversity and challenge”, which is the definition of resilience, drawing from both the American Psychological Association definition and the world of high performance.

Leadership consistency is the outward manifestation of leadership resilience, and it is what gives people faith and confidence in their leaders and their company’s success. It is a leader’s capacity to perform consistency under pressure and to thrive, which is what makes it distinct from just “bouncing back” or “grit” or “mental toughness,” which are about powering through. Leadership consistency is also one of the factors of workplace trust - which is absolutely critical to performance and productivity in times of challenge.

Leadership Stress is Contagious

Our ability as leaders to manage our response to adversity and stress significantly impacts the resilience of those who work with and for us. According to behavioral research (Kelner, Rivers, & O’Connell), up to 75% of people’s views of their company–their place in it, how they’re valued, how their contributions matter, how confident they are of success–all come down to their view of their leader.

For all of us in a leadership position, this means that our people are watching us: they are processing how we respond to adversity and stress and how that influences and informs how we engage with them and make decisions, communicate, and deal with problems. This is critical because stressed leaders are more likely to take a passive approach to leadership and/or engage in fewer inspirational leadership behaviors, according to data collected by the BetterUp Lab.

For the workforce, this has a trickle down effect, because being consistently challenged by a leader’s stress is draining and leaves little to no reserves for growth or responding when something happens out of the normal or challenges people beyond their perceived capacity - - like a pandemic, for example. Humans are biologically wired to focus on the negative during times of challenge and, more critically, leadership emotions are catching. There is even a name for this and a field of study called Emotional Contagion, resident in the Avery Institute of Executive Education, Wharton School of Business.

Building Leadership Resilience

All of the research around resilience clearly indicates that the capacity and capability to be resilient can be self taught and cultivated in others. There are four foundational elements to building a robust personal resilience strategy:

  1. Self-Care: the habits, practices, and rituals that help you to recover, reset, and manage your energy reserves and, importantly, your surge capability when you need that something extra. According to the lab at BetterUp, people are 3.5 times more likely to be resilient when they are in good health. Our health has a powerful impact on our ability to survive and thrive under pressure and this means paying attention to nutrition, sleep rituals and habits, and intentional recovery time. Some great resources include the book, Time Off, which posits that rest is just not something we do to recover for more work but something which frees our bodies of work stress. We also recommend The Making of Corporate Athlete, which offers a great template.

  2. Self-Awareness: a realistic assessment of your strengths, weaknesses, emotions, and impact on others, which are the foundational underpinnings for wellbeing, satisfaction,and growth. For resilience, especially, the critical part of awareness is understanding your stress triggers, the physical and cognitive cues to stress. Andy Walshe, a global leader in elite human performance, teaches the importance of developing pattern recognition of where you are on your own stress curve. The intent is to develop the ability to self-modulate before stress impacts your ability to respond well or robs you of an opportunity because you lack the energy to take advantage of it. It is as simple as tracking what causes you stress and how you respond to it over a two week period as a first step to creating your stress mitigation plan.

  3. Self-Talk - managing your mindset, otherwise known as cognitive resilience. It is recognizing when you are self-sabotaging with negative thoughts, and understanding how to reframe them as motivation or shift to a more positive frame of mind. An excellent book on how to build the habit of reframing is Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine, and Carol Dweck’s Mindset is a seminal work on shifting mindset for success.

  4. Staying Connected - with your people, your team, your networks, your family, and friends. Resilience is a collective capability and is heavily enabled by strong relationships and networks. Harnessing the power of support from your employees, team, networks, and family and friends to rejuvenate leaders and help them to solve challenges and find new opportunities. There is a great Harvard Business review article on how we can become more resilient through the process of connecting with others. It even offers a diagnostic to help assess your relational resilience needs and how to broaden your networks.

The bottom line is that the more you understand yourself and find the tools and strategies that work for you to manage your stress, the more you will build your own resilience reserves to thrive.

And, remember, it is not only for you, but also for your people and your organization.

If you can lower stress among your team and in your system, just by your actions and how you show up, imagine what you could accomplish with a team that is focused and energized in times of challenge.

A Tried and True Resilience Practice

One practical resilience strategy to quickly calm, focus, and reset when you are stressed is called Box Breathing. Box breathing - also known as 4-4-4-4 - is a way of breathing designed to slow your heart and thoughts, employed by the Navy SEALS and other high performance cultures.

  • Box breathing is breathing in four seconds, holding for four seconds, exhaling for four seconds, holding for four seconds.

  • The cadence is four times a day, for four months straight - which is what it takes to create a habit, which is what you default to, and in this case, when you are feeling stressed.

About Patty Brandmaier.

Patty Brandmaier, is Principal, Human Capital Services, with Pondera International, a boutique consulting company. She also is an executive leadership and team coach and serves as a performance advisor with Arena Labs, a company pioneering resilience in modern healthcare, and the Liminal Collective, a community dedicated to unleashing human potential.

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