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Resilience is the Key to Leadership

The below is an exclusive extract from  Neuroscience for Leaders by Alexandros Psychogios and Nikolaos Dimitriadis.

Resilience is key

Complexity, and the sheer amount of challenges facing the modern leader, will not slow down anytime soon.

Leaders will need to navigate and operate in highly demanding environments having the same brain, as a species, as thousands of years ago. This means that our ability to deal with large amounts of information, dynamic decision-making and multitasking, which are key drivers of ego depletion and burnout, will need to improve too.

In addition to the ways presented in this chapter so far for achieving this, there is one more concept we would like to discuss: resilience.

Our brains constantly develop and revise strategies for dealing effectively with the environment. Based on where we were born and the experiences we went through during our lives, our brain has learned to fully immerse itself in or to deflect emotionally compromising situations. The degree to which the brain sustains the emotional hit from a negative situation and the speed by which it recovers from it is called resilience.

Practically speaking, if your thinking process remains relatively unaffected and your willpower strong after negative news such as a significant drop in sales, an important vendor’s delayed delivery and the defection of a strategic partner to a competitor then your resilience is high.

Resilience as a term is frequently used in relation to engineering. It is interesting to examine it from that perspective in order to reveal its inner meaning. Professor of Integrated Systems Engineering and Cognitive Psychologist David D Woods defines resilience as ‘understanding how the system adapts and to what kinds of disturbances in the environment’ (Woods, 2006). According to Woods, its essential characteristics are:

  • Capacity: The size or kinds of disruptions the system can absorb or adapt
  • Flexibility: The system’s ability to restructure itself in response to external changes or pressures
  • Margin: How closely to its limits the system can continue
  • Tolerance: How a system behaves when reaching a boundary (fast vs slow collapse)

In the organizational context, those essential characteristics can be translated as follows: how many ‘hits’ (negative news, bad decisions, personal conflict with colleagues, etc) you can take and what kind of ‘hits’ have a bigger effect on you; how flexible are you when you get a negative ‘hit’ and how do you compose yourself; how close to your limits can you operate normally; if you reach your limit, how fast or slow do you regress? These are difficult questions, and their answers are not always known to us, but they are important ones that need to be addressed.

In work, psychology resilience has a very similar definition to that used in engineering. In an overview of the field, Fletcher and Sarkar (2013) defined resilience as ‘the role of mental processes and behaviour in promoting personal assets and protecting an individual from the potential negative effect of stressors’.

Resilience is like the brain’s immune system for challenging situations. Having said that, a resilient person is not the one that is not affected at all by the situation. This would probably be a sign of indifference, disassociation and disengagement. The resilient person receives the negative ‘hit’, experiences it, and then reacts and ‘bounces back’.

Various components of personal resilience have been suggested in relevant literature such as: degrees of coping, personal flexibility, sense of agency and purpose, positive engagement in daily life, emotional regulation and biometrics of physiological buoyancy, such as heart rate variability (Zautra et al, 2010). Since resilience is a process, it is not static, but it develops over time.

Studying brain network architecture, Ohashi and associates (2019) found that resilient individuals had less interconnected brain sections than non-resilient ones. This was particularly pronounced in the right amygdala, which is the main fear centre in the brain. This means that resilient brains have more isolated brain sections in order not to allow widespread distribution of a strong negative reaction throughout the brain. This is a remarkable finding. It adds to previous studies in both animals and humans showing that resilient brains have learned to use neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to physically change, to address challenges and promote right behaviours to their advantage (Russo et al, 2012).

In contrast, non-resilient brains have learned, often due to earlier trauma, to be more sensitive, or overly sensitive, and to prioritize threats and negativity. Indeed, resilience is the process in which the brain engages actively in coping mechanisms to return to the normal situation, or its homeostasis, and not overemphasizing the risk by making it dominant in extensive neural networks.

Resilience is also a well-applied concept in leadership studies. In particular, leadership resilience, along with other positive psychological capacities like hope, optimism and confidence, are considered to be psychological capital (PsyCap) for leaders (Luthans et al, 2006).

Peterson et al (2008), by collecting and analyzing data regarding PsyCap of 55 business leaders from a variety of industries using survey techniques, managed to categorize leaders into low and high PsyCap. Then by using a well-established neuroscientific research method called electroencephalography (EEG) they compared the two groups and found that high PsyCap ones tended to show greater activity in the left, prefrontal cortex, confirming that resilience is related to this part of their brain. According to the same study, resilient leaders have a more reliable view of reality, being more logical in analyzing situations and taking action.

In addition, Maulding et al (2012) found that resilience is related to effective leadership. Their study found a strong correlation between resilience, emotional intelligence and successful leadership performance. Similarly, Steward (2014) reveals that resilient leaders show a series of capabilities like emotional intelligence and energy, but also a series of self-oriented aspects like well-being, strong purpose and self-confidence.

These studies and many more suggest that resilience is not a state of being, but a complex process of adaptation and growth within a particular context (Southwick, et al, 2017). A resilient leader does not just manage to survive in a challenging business environment – they embrace challenge and thrive in this environment. So, the question now is how can leaders develop their resilience? What are the aspects that they can enhance?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA, 2019), these are the 10 main ways to increase resilience:

  1. Make: Create and engage in relationships that are meaning- ful, by receiving and giving assistance to people close to you.
  2. Rethink: Instead of looking at crises as catastrophic, one-off events, try to view them as situations that have happened before to other people who are still around.
  3. Embrace change: Accept the fact that everything changes and that this might be a good thing in helping you focus better on what matters.
  4. Set goals: Create manageable and realistic goals and move towards them in a feasible step-by-step.
  5. Take: Engage with challenges by taking decisions and moving into action.
  6. Look inside: Identify situations where you felt slightly better and try to adopt a similar mindset when problems.
  7. Increase confidence: Learning to trust your intuition and instincts can create a more positive view.
  8. Think long-term: Dissecting a negative situation by looking at its past, present and future is key to demystifying.
  9. Be: Focus on the positive aspects of your life, or of a challenging situation, and visualize a better outcome.
  10. Take:  Try to enjoy life and work more by doing the things that have a higher positive impact on you.

When your brain maintains optimum power levels, the ability to increase your resilience is at its best. A tired brain is rarely, if ever, a resilient brain.

Keep in mind

Multitasking, ego depletion and the long-term syndrome of burnout are serious threats to the modern leader and the practice of leadership.

Brainpower is crucial for leadership since it is directly related to increased self-control, meaningful engagement, effective task completion and resilience. Thus, a powerful brain creates a powerful leader and not the other way around.

You need to embrace the fact that the guardian of your brain’s power is you. So, choose to protect it and to direct its energy where is needed the most.

Boost your brain: Learn to distinguish tasks from leadership

Make a list of tasks that you want/need to accomplish almost daily in your job. Then make another list of your actions as leader. Think about what you are doing to accomplish the items on the first list and what you do in order to behave as leader.

Then think which of these tasks are really critical and which leadership actions are equally critical. Think how much time you dedicate on the task side and then how much time you dedicate on leadership actions. Do you leave your brain enough power in both groups? How can you improve your brain power reserves based on what you learned in this chapter?

Consider your conclusions and use them next time.


APA (2019) Building your resilience

Baumeister, FR and Tierney, J (2011) Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength, Penguin Group, London

Borysenko, K (2019) Burnout is now an officially diagnosable condition: Here’s what you need to know about it

Fletcher, D and Sarkar, M (2013) Psychological resilience: A review and critique of definitions, concepts, and theory, European Psychologist, 18, pp 12–23

Luthans, F, Avey, JB, Avolio, BJ, Norman, SM and Combs, GM (2006)

Psychological capital development: Toward a micro-intervention, Journal of Organizational Behavior: The international journal of industrial, occupational and organizational psychology and behavior, 27(3), pp 387–93

Maulding, WS, Peters, GB, Roberts, J, Leonard, E and Sparkman, L (2012) Emotional intelligence and resilience as predictors of leadership in school administrators, Journal of Leadership Studies, 5(4), pp 20–29

Ohashi, K, Anderson, CM, Bolger, EA, Khan, A, McGreenery, CE, and Teicher, MH (2019) Susceptibility or resilience to maltreatment can be explained by specific differences in brain network architecture, Biological Psychiatry, 85(8), pp 690–702

Peterson, SJ, Balthazard, PA, Waldman, DA and Thatcher, RW (2008) Neuroscientific implications of psychological capital: Are the brains of optimisic, hopeful, confident, and resilient leaders different? Organizational Dynamics, 37 (4), pp 342-53

Russo, SJ, Murrough, JW, Jam, MH, Charney, DS and Nestler, EJ (2012), Neurobiology of resilience, Nature and Neuroscience, 15(11), pp 1475-84

Southwick, FS, Martini, BL, CHarney, DS and Southwick, SM (2017) Leadership and resilience, in Leadership Today, ed J Marques and S Dhiman, pp 315-33, Springer, New York#

Steward, J (2014) Sustaining emotional resilience for school leadership, School Leadership and Management, 34(1), pp 52-68

Woods, DD (2006) Essential characteristics of resilience engineering, in Resilience Engineering: Concepts and precepts, ed E Holnagel, DD Woods and N Leveson, pp 21-34, Ashgate Publishing, Burlington

Zatura, AJ, Hall, JS, and Murray, KE (2010) A new defintion of health for people and communities, in Handbook of Adult Resilience, ed JW Reich, AJ Zautra and JS Hall, pp 3-19, Guildford Press, New York

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