Resilient Leadership
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm
.” Winston Churchill

With on-going cuts in both the private and public sectors, and continual threats of restructuring, mergers, reorganisations and downsizing, many executives are experiencing stress. This stress could be around job insecurity, uncertainty or a sense of loss of control over their future. Resilience in the face of such adversity is therefore more important than ever.

What does resilience look like?

Resilient executives and leaders are able to respond effectively and bounce back from challenging and adverse situations. They reflect on what has occurred and view adversity as a catalyst for future success. They can inspire staff when the going gets tough and positively influence the organisation during difficult or uncertain times. They embrace challenges and retain energy and drive. They believe they are in control of their own destiny.

Others who are less resilient, find adverse situations and challenges debilitating and may become despondent, negative and crumble under similar pressure. They feel events are beyond their control, and can become easily discouraged and develop a sense of helplessness. We have all seen these individuals at work – they are the ones whose language and behaviour is consistently negative and pessimistic, they resist change or new ideas and they drain the energy from the room.

Why do some leaders crumble under pressure while others prosper during upheavals? 

One theory is that resilient leaders have a different mindset about setbacks and seem to look at failure differently. Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, demonstrated the mindset of and individual determines how they work through difficult problems. She describes two mindsets – fixed and growth. Managers with a fixed mindset view setbacks as a reflection of personal failing, believe that whatever befalls them is personal – it’s all about them, so in order to retain their sense of personal worth they tend to avoid acknowledging their failures, blame others, retreat or act superior. On the other hand, growth mindset managers believe that experiencing setbacks is something positive to be embraced, absorbed and welcomed. They are a catalyst for learning, capitalising on mistakes, confronting deficiencies and growing from experiences.

It is easy to see that teams headed by growth mindset managers are ultimately more productive and are more likely to develop greater resilience than teams headed by fixed mindset managers.

How can an understanding of brain workings help us? 

Let’s look at what is happening in the human brain when adversity strikes. In a biological sense, difficulties or challenges that seem above our ability to resolve them tend to trigger an automatic “stress response”. This “fight or flight” response is one of the most basic and primal mechanisms that has been hardwired through millions of years of evolution – very helpful when fleeing a predator, but less helpful in today’s world. Stress releases cortisol, a neurotransmitter that prepares you for action – the right amount is a call to action; too much cortisol can result in negative or destructive behaviour or emotional outbursts. Perhaps resilient leaders manage cortisol levels more effectively.

Another neurotransmitter called dopamine is also released at this time. Neurons that release dopamine act as prediction neurons – they release dopamine when what is expected matches what actually happens. This predictability is part of what is pleasurable or rewarding to our brains. When what actually happens matches our expectations, dopamine levels stay steady – the sense of pleasure of the reward is uninterrupted. We know what’s coming, we know what to expect, so our brain can relax its vigilance about what’s going to happen. Predictability creates a sense of safety.

Dopamine neurons also function as error detectors. The detection of error temporarily inhibits the release of dopamine. There is no more pleasure or reward until we can figure out what’s going on. The brain attempts to restore dopamine levels by incorporating the lessons of the past into future expectations, so that we become fearful and more prepared for future unknown events.

According to research conducted by Dr. Michelle Neely of Stanford University, using humour is one way to activate brain networks that are involved in rewards. Laughter is the best medicine for reducing stress hormones, lowering blood pressure, reducing risk of heart attack and stroke and improving your immune system by generating more disease fighting cells.

Perhaps resilient leaders have learned to tap into their reward centres. They have overcome anxiety that precedes unexpected change. They believe that venturing into the new is not inherently dangerous and will bring reliable reward and pleasure. They become comfortable with the unknown and learn to find ease in risk and therefore adjust to change more effectively. They may use humour to relieve at tense situation.

Becoming a resilient leader

There are at least seven lessons we can learn from a neuroscientific approach to stress and resilience that can help us learn to thrive during change:

Select leaders to work with you with the right approach. Positive leaders, who innately focus on growth and see challenges as opportunities, are much more likely to develop resilience in others than leaders with

  1. A fixed or negative mindset. Using appropriate assessment processes, look for people equipped with a growth mindset.
  2. Manage your own stress response. Managing cortisole levels before they lead to emotional melt-down is critical to resilient leadership. Practising breathing techniques, taking a physical break from your environment, or simply counting to ten before responding to a stressful situation will lower cortisole.
  3. Adopt a growth mindset. Reflect on change as a positive learning experience and anopportunity to grow. See the positive reasons for change and communicate them to others.
  4. Foster a sense of personal control. Take responsibility over things that you can control, such as your behaviour or response to a situation.
  5. Encourage open and direct communication with your team. Encouraging them to confront the facts and give them the confidence and resources to proactively respond where they can. Empowering individuals to communicate openly and honestly and giving them support is a critical factor in resilient leadership.
  6. Inject some humour into the situation to reduce stress and generate some perspective.
  7. Connect with friends. Research tells us that individuals who are able to connect with others that they trust are more resilient that those who do not have this social resource.

Further Reading
Dr. Carol S. Dweck, Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, 2006, Random House.
Neely et al, “Neural Correlates of Humor Detection and Appreciation in Children”, The Journal of Neuroscience, 1 February 2012, 32.
Sentis article, “The Seven Core Practices to Become a Resilient Leader”, 1 June, 2012
E Batchelor (Egon Zhender, “From Adversity to Success”, CEO Forum – Leadership in Action, 26 June 2012.
Cary Cooper, “Hard Times Call for Resilient Leaders”, Director Magazine, September 2012.