Four steps to becoming a more resilient business leader

By Jo Maddocks, co-founder and Chief Psychologist, JCA Global

It’s easy to believe that successful business builders have built in resilience. Leaders often need to persevere under difficult and arduous circumstances. They are the ones who can usually be counted on during constant change or when times are tough. But everyone has their limit. Sometimes situations can get just too much to handle.

My interest in resilience first began more than 20 years ago when I was asked to identify the reasons behind high drop out rates from apprenticeship schemes. My investigations included meeting with employers, trainers, parents and the apprentices themselves. What I learnt was not what I had assumed. The reasons were not a lack of skills, poor learning or personal circumstances. The single most significant factor was the apprentice’s attitude or mindset.

We have developed a four-stage process to help business leaders cope with adversity by changing their attitude and behaviour. To develop resilience, you need to be aware of how you respond. Below are some of the emotional intelligence attitudes and behaviours that we’ve found are particularly relevant during each stage to build resilience during and after adversity.

Stage 1: Survive – how we respond

Usually things are ticking along quite nicely for us and then adversity strikes. This is followed immediately by a period of decline, either steep or gradual. As a leader, you need to be aware of how you respond to setbacks. Do you give up? Do you show resistance and keep going? Do you blame others? Do you criticise yourself? Do you avoid or withdraw? Do you get aggressive? Or do you get passive and overly compliant?

The attitudes and behaviours that are particularly relevant during the Survive stage are:

  • Self Regard: Looking after yourself, which includes accepting and valuing yourself.
  • Regard for Others: Accepting and valuing others as people, which is distinct from liking or approving of what they do.
  • Emotional Expression & Control: The degree to which you are emotionally controlled.
  • Conflict Handing: How well you handle conflict.

Stage 2: Adapt – how we adjust

All of us, at some point, will be affected by adversity. It’s how we cope and adjust to the situation that makes the difference. Today as business leaders we operate in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world. This places a great deal of stress on us as leaders, and on the people around us. We need to be aware of our own emotions as well as other people’s and how they’re coping. We need to adapt to situations and also be able to seek support where needed.

The key behaviours and attitudes are:

  • Self Awareness: Being aware of your own physiology, feelings and intuitions.
  • Awareness of Others: Looking out for the feelings of others.
  • Flexibility: Adapting your thinking and your behaviour to current situations.
  • Interdependence: How well you manage to balance yourself and taking others into account.

Stage 3: Recover – how we bounce back

As well as toughing it out and showing grit and determination, recovery is about moving forward. We look to bounce back, ideally to the point before the setback. Most people will tend to have an equilibrium that they will return to.

  • Emotional Resilience: The degree to which you are able to pick yourself up and bounce back when things go badly for you.
  • Personal Power: The degree to which you believe that you are in charge and take sole responsibility for your outcomes.
  • Goal Directedness: How you relate your behaviour to long-term goals and knowing what you want to achieve.
  • Balanced Outlook: How well you manage to balance optimism with realism. Having clear vision and believing you can achieve it.

Stage 4: Thrive – how we grow

When things go wrong and you’ve been through challenges do you learn from it and grow? Resilience is more than just recovery. Adversity gives us the opportunity to change our own lives and identify areas for improvement. Do we want to change so that we’re better able to cope next time adversity strikes? Do we need to have people around us who support us during difficult times?

The following are the behaviours and characteristics to consider during the final stage.

  • Connecting with Others: The extent and ease with which you are able to make significant connections with other people.
  • Authenticity: Where you invite the trust of others by being principled, reliable, consistent and known.
  • Trust: Your own personal tendency to trust others.
  • Reflective Learning: How you can enhance your own Emotional Intelligence by reflecting on what you and others feel, think and do.

There’s the classic example of highly successful entrepreneurs. Invariably they’ve had their fair share of failures but what they’ve done is learnt from these setbacks. Of course, failure is just feedback so for these entrepreneurs adversity is a good thing.

Adversity can be a good thing for us all. As long as we learn how to apply our internal resources – the behaviours and attitudes – to improve our resilience, we will be far better able to cope with the strains and stressors faced as business leaders operating in a VUCA world.