Becoming a More Resilient Leader

Leading is stressful

Another week begins and you study your to-do list. It’s endless, and no matter how hard you try to prioritize, it seems that everything is urgent. With barely enough time for another cup of coffee, you roll up your sleeves and dive in. The best cure for a relentless workload is just to move faster, right? And somehow to always find the energy to do so.

We’ve all been there, both as individual contributors and now, as leaders. The pace seems to be speeding up by the day, as our responsibilities grow to include those looking to us to lead them. How can we devote the energy needed to provide guidance to others when it sometimes seems we’re barely keeping our own nose above water?

We can expect this to continue and increase

It’s a natural thing for the scope of our work to expand as our careers advance. We’re gaining influence as well as control. Not only are we becoming more effective in running our part of the show, we’re also able to reach farther and have more of an effect in how our peers perform as well.

This is the gratifying part of leadership of course—being successful and making greater contributions to the success of others.  But in order to scale this, we’ll have to build greater stamina as well as increase our skills and expertise.

We can take charge of our resilience

Resilience can be defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from stress”, or “the ability to remain flexible under pressure”.  Resilience is a feature of every natural and human system.  Think how a forest recovers from a fire, or how an organization rights itself after a destabilizing event.  Yet how much emphasis do we put on developing our own resilience as leaders?

It’s easy to see that this ability to “spring back into shape after adversity” doesn’t happen by accident—that it takes deliberate focus and effort for resilience to be part of the systems we create, inhabit and sustain as leaders.

But if we can make one assumption about the future—that it is going to be more demanding of us as leaders—then clearly this is an important question:  “What do I need to do so that I thrive despite the stress of leading?”

Four points of focus for increasing resilience

Our research suggests looking into four areas of practice to become tougher and more elastic from the inside out:

  1. Physical health

It goes without saying that in order to lead others we’ll do better if we maintain a high level of physical health and fitness.  Diet, exercise and rest play a key role, as does taking regular breaks from work to recharge.  So obvious yet so often minimized—we can best lead from a foundation of wellness.

  1. Mindset

How we think about ourselves is one of our most powerful tools.  Cultivating a positive mindset is one way we can train ourselves to manage the feeling of overload from our weekly tasks.  Positive self-regard and a mind open to possibility become fundamental attributes of the leader who thrives under pressure.

  1. Calm and center the mind

Even if our life as a leader seems non-stop, we do have the power to institute routines that foster recharge and renewal.  Whether this is through prayer, meditation, or spending time in nature, creating a habit of reflection can make an important difference in our energy and effectiveness.

  1. Community

None of us are in this alone.  Despite our culture’s emphasis on competition, we can cultivate a robust network of collaborators and confidants.  And supporting others in developing their resilience is an excellent way to build our own.

Our responsibilities to our organizations, our families and ourselves

To the leaders I coach, resilience is not a luxury or “nice to have” item on their list.  Rather, it is an essential element of their success as people guiding their organizations and co-workers.  The more visibility we gain, the more important it becomes to develop a deep and effective way to recharge from the rush of thought and activity that we so often engage in.

The bottom line—YOU are responsible for your own resilience

Developing better practices around resilience need not take a great deal of time.  The good news is that we can institute a few simple practices no matter where we are.  Even ten minutes a day can make a real difference in how we show up as leaders who demonstrate a commitment to leading ourselves first.

  1. Take stock of where you are

A simple and revealing exercise is to chart where your energy comes from, and where it goes.  Create your own “energy map” by listing on a sheet of paper where energy flows out from you every week—work, commuting, family, etc.  In a second column list the sources of energy for you—food, rest, exercise, hobbies, family.

Do the two columns balance?

Most of us find that we spend more energy than we take in.  Chances are there are places you are “leaking” energy, where you maybe could expend a little less.  Or perhaps devoting a bit more time to the activities that feed you will make a real difference.

  1. Study what is working for others

Think of a person you know who seems to have a good attitude, has energy or demonstrates equanimity.  What does this look like, and how do they affect others?  Take the person out to lunch (you pay!) and ask them how they do it. What’s their practice?  How do they think about themselves and manage their energy?

  1. Take a positive action every day

Schedule a few minutes at the start of your day to remember what is most important to you.  Envision your mindset that night as you fall asleep. Commit yourself to one action today that will build your capacity to weather whatever the day brings.

Don’t put this aside for “when I have time”

Despite the complexity and commitment of our lives, maintaining our resilience is not a difficult need to appreciate.  Nor is it hard to see how more focus here will help us and others succeed.  But like a lot of things important to a sense of satisfaction in our lives, it requires a real commitment; an acceptance of the investment value of the time needed.

In our workshops, we ask leaders to think about resilience as part of their long-term strategy to develop greater leadership effectiveness.  Make it yours as well.


Dan Schwab

Dan Schwab is a Leadership educator, coach, Certified Master and a 30-year veteran working with The Leadership Challenge. He works primarily with clients in higher education, non-profit, and government.