20 May 2024

Leadership and Resilience – The Adaptable Spirit of Great Leaders

Lessons from the past on what resilience and adaptability in leadership really means

Think about all the great leaders throughout history who have driven change in the world: they’ve all faced setbacks and adversity, crises and conflicts along the way. But they showed the strength to stay true to their values, the courage to take initiative and to challenge the status quo, and had the resilience required to keep going in the face of adversity.

These qualities are the pre-requisites of great leadership and allow leaders to guide and inspire others towards a shared goal, creating followers along the way. Those leaders who have made their mark in history have had resilience turned up to the max, but what does resilience really entail?

Embracing adaptability

One notable leader who exemplified true resilience and courage was Marcus Aurelius, who beautifully said:

“Our actions may be impeded… but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.”

In short, adaptability is an integral part of true resilience. Not many of us are conquering geographical empires these days, but the ability to face an obstacle, to adapt and thrive is still a vital aspect of leadership in the modern world, just as it was in ancient Rome.

Accepting both joy and hardship

Marcus Aurelius held one of the most powerful positions in the world, faced myriad hardships, and the people around him truly believed that he was worthy of the title of Emperor. He also left behind his contemplations on the nature of being human and finding meaning and joy amidst the hardships of life, significantly adding to the stoic teachings of leaders for generations to come. Mark Ronson, a modern-day stoic said: “What we get out of life is not only determined by the good feelings we desire but by the bad feelings we are willing and able to sustain to get to these good feelings.”

His words imply that our capacity for joy is directly related to the level of hardship we have faced. We need some stress to become resilient: not too much and not too little. And, if we can bear our hardships and stresses, adapting and learning from them, then not only is more joy available to us but it’s the quickest and deepest way to become stronger and grow. Post-traumatic growth in some form is THE essential element of personal development evolution itself.

Stretching beyond our limits

Resilience can be seen as the will and ability to stretch ourselves beyond our everyday capabilities. It involves bouncing back from hardship, integrating the gifts hardship brings, consolidating learning and developing in ways that previously we were not aware we were capable of.

We have the greatest admiration of the kinds of leaders that persevere, adapt and bounce back from failure and adversity. A recent example is Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid activist and former President of South Africa, who endured decades of imprisonment and adversity in his quest for justice and equality. Despite being incarcerated for 27 years, Mandela emerged from prison with his spirit unbroken and his commitment to the cause stronger than ever. His ability to forgive his oppressors and his unwavering belief in the power of reconciliation earned him worldwide admiration. Mandela’s leadership transcended his personal hardship. In fact, he would not have been the man he was without it.

Having the right conditions to be a resilient leader

Some people are more resilient than others and there are many reasons for this, too many to examine in this short article. Yet it’s clear that there are certain essential characteristics and conditions that create particularly resilient and courageous leaders. In my work with leaders from many global organisations, I have seen certain themes arise, time and again that you as a leader can learn from:

Firstly… Meaning and purpose: If you deeply believe in what needs to be done, your vision and values as a leader will sustain you through the hardships. A sense of purpose or meaning is often connected to something bigger than the person, like a political or religious movement, a spiritual or natural connection, or indeed the purpose of your organisation. Many leaders see themselves as servants to their people and, intrinsically, most human beings get a sense of meaning from being in service to others. The lesson here? Find something meaningful to you that draws out untapped talents and resources, and your resilience will grow.

Secondly… Headspace: Resilient leaders often take time each day to rest, stop and think. To make sense of the world, to challenge their own views, and to roll ideas around in their head. Most senior leaders in any organisation recognise that they are employed for their ability to think clearly, so they create time to contemplate, to learn new things, and to apply their learning in the most creative way possible.

I recommend finding time each day to reflect on what’s happening for you personally and in your environment. Relaxing, spending time in nature away from the screen allows you to consolidate your learning, solve problems and make better decisions. Around five to ten percent of your workday should be spent like this, allowing you to access the wonderful qualities of your pre-frontal cortex (your thinking brain) and to rejuvenate so that you can face the challenges of the day.

Thirdly… Connection with others: Fundamentally, we’re social creatures and when we connect healthily with others we are strengthened and revitalised. The brain secretes oxytocin when we give and receive quality attention to each other, giving us a sense of belonging. Oxytocin washes away nor-adrenalin, which is released when we are angry and anxious, clouding our thinking, decision making and perspective, thus negating the ability to adapt. Great leaders are resilient precisely because they can adapt, read multiple contexts, and even empathise with their enemies as well as their friends.

Take time to get to know people and to let them know you. Work towards creating interdependent relationships, psychological safety, transparency and trust with your connections. They will show the same back to you, and you’ll bolster each other’s courage and resilience.

Fourthly…Selfcare: NEVER forget the importance of having a good sleep pattern, healthy foods and regular exercise. We are biological, psychological and social beings, and the health of all three parts of ourselves has an impact our resilience and effectiveness.

Lastly … I like this:

‘A wise woman was passing by a tree from which a monkey threw a coconut at her. ‘Ouch’ she said … then she stooped down, picked it up, broke it open, drank the juice, ate the meat, made a cup from the shell—and went on her way.’

The team at TNM can help you build the resilience of your leaders and teams through coaching and bespoke professional development programs. Simply book a discovery call with one of our consultants.

Written by Damian Fearns


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