Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right – Henry Ford

Key to Leadership Success

At one time many people used to believe that great leaders had infinite amounts of stamina, energy, optimism, and skills; that they were kind of superhuman, and that was the reason they could deliver business success year after year. But the truth is somewhat different – even great leaders are human and they can suffer burn-out from crises and stress if they are not physically and mentally fit.  Resilience, the ability to bounce back, to cope with adversity, and learn from mistakes, is the new strength.

What happens in fact, is that resilient leaders move very quickly from analysis to a plan of action (and reaction). After adverse events, they shift from cause-oriented thinking to response-oriented thinking, and their focus becomes strictly forward-looking. It is this quick recovery time that defines a resilient leader.

And it is not only leaders who face adversity – we all do. But clearly, some people are better able to get back up and move on after trouble, while others were not. To survive and succeed in today’s business world we must all build our capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; our mental (and also physical) toughness in the face of adversity is what will make us successful or simply average.

What is Resilience?

Resilience is a critical component–perhaps the most important component–to a happy and healthy life. Resilience is the capacity to keep going, to bounce back after setbacks and disappointments, and to effectively handle adversity and unexpected challenges. More than anything else, resilience is what determines how fast and how high we can bounce back after adversity. Everyone needs resilience to carry on living day after day. But to really succeed, we need high-octane resilience.

A resilient attitude is defined by accurate and flexible thinking, the ability to seek and find other points of view, to challenge one’s own habitual patterns of thinking, to solve problems creatively, and to get back to work despite experiencing setbacks.

According to Reivich & Shatte, in their book, The Resilience Factor, there are four requirements for resilience:

  1. Believing that changing one’s life is possible.
  2. Recognizing that we can become more resilient by changing how we think about challenges and adversity.
  3. Striving for accuracy and flexibility in our thinking.
  4. Focusing on our strengths, rather than weaknesses.

How does it work?

Our general beliefs about the future (whether we are optimistic or pessimistic), our beliefs about ourselves (whether we believe we are able to take control of our lives or we are just a victim of circumstances), will tell us how well we naturally adapt to stress and adversity. Resilient people believe that they can influence or control the events in their lives. They see mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth. And they are committed to and engaged in their work and life as a result of a belief in the value of what they are doing.


How is optimism related to resilience?

The way we respond to stress and adversity depends partly on our beliefs about how the future will turn out. Optimistic people generally believe that things will turn out well, regardless of the trouble and difficulties they may be dealing with at the moment. Pessimists, as we know, tend to view the future as unpredictable and gloomy. Being optimistic also means believing that we have greater ability to manage negative events, and less likely to spiral into anxiety and depression.



How is self-efficacy related to resilience?

Self-efficacy means the belief that we have the skills or strength or resources to cope with difficult situations. This belief predicts a better adjustment or reaction to adversity than the belief that we are not capable.[1] We can build and strengthen these beliefs by achieving successful outcomes in similar situations, by seeing others cope successfully, and by being encouraged and mentored by others who believe we can be successful.


Can Resilience be Learned?

Or more importantly, can resilience be measured and taught?

“The key to resilience is the ability to recognize your own thoughts and structures of belief and harness the power of increased accuracy and flexibility of thinking to manage the emotional and behavioural consequences more effectively. This ability can be measured, taught and improved.”[2]

“Thirty years of scientific research has put the answers to these questions within our reach. We have learned not only how to distinguish those who will grow after failure from those who will collapse, but also how to build the skills of people in the latter category.”[3]

There are many things we can do to increase our resilience. In addition to taking good care of ourselves physically by getting enough sleep, eating smart, and exercising regularly, we can learn how to increase the accuracy and flexibility of our thinking. Reivich and Shatte[4] discuss seven skills, which will allow you to; increase your awareness of the relationship between your thoughts and your emotions; gain insight into your beliefs when things go wrong; and look for alternative beliefs when you are experiencing debilitating emotions.

These seven skills are categorized broadly into two groups: skills for self-awareness, and skills for change. Both types of skills are necessary to build permanent resilience.


Self Awareness – The ABC technique

ABC (Adversity, Beliefs, Consequences) The theory is this: is not the events that happen to us that directly cause our feelings and behaviors – it is our thoughts or beliefs about the events that impact how we feel and ultimately what we do and how we react.

Generally we respond to the events in our lives in reasonable and productive ways that allow us to carry on with our lives. We usually deal with our emotions positively also, but there are occasions when we experience powerful negative emotions that prevent us from solving our problems and engaging in constructive actions. Some of us brood continuously about the significance of adverse events, and we feel the corresponding emotions over and over again with no progress.

Reivich and Shatté suggest that the first step in becoming more resilient is to work on increasing our self-awareness, to understand to our own interpretations of adverse events. In other words, what do we say to ourselves when we are upset? What is our interior monologue telling us?

It is usually easy to identify the adverse event (A) and the feelings and behavior (C) that go along with it. But is much more difficult to figure out what beliefs (the B part) led them to feel and react the way they do. Once you have identified your beliefs, you can begin to challenge them: to think about likely, but alternative beliefs that are less negative or harmful.

Imagine you are a salesperson and a client has just told you that your proposal was rejected in favor of a competitor’s proposal. This is the adverse event (A). It is possible that you may react by feeling angry and blaming the customer for making a stupid decision. Then thinking that that customer is stupid (B), you may never visit him again (C), and thereby lose their business permanently. We can see that a salesperson without resilience would not last long.

A more healthy reaction would be to examine the situation for possible learning, so that next time the proposal you write will be accepted. In other words, the salesperson would believe that there must be some logical reason for the decision (B) and make an effort to learn it (C), so that the next opportunity is more successful.

Change Skills – Challenging Beliefs

The first technique among the “change skills” builds on the ABC technique. This is done by continuing the analysis to find the beliefs that are driving your reactive behavior, then seeking alternative causes that more accurately reflect reality and then considering alternative reactions that are more healthy and positive. Ultimately the resilient person will solve the problem creatively after achieving an emotionally and mentally objective state.

Most training courses provide tools and templates for developing the good thinking habits that resilient people naturally follow.

Who Needs Resilience?

The short answer is that we all need resilience. But it is clear that some roles require resilience more than others. Leaders obviously need a resilient mindset to carry on when things go wrong. Sales people also face setbacks and disappointments much more than the average worker. And these days, as our world gets smaller and more people are sent overseas in search of business opportunities or efficiencies, more people are dealing with the confusion and frustration of foreign culture and thus need a resilient attitude in order to persevere.

Developing Personal Resiliency Workshop


[1] Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, Bandura, 1997.

[2] The Resilience Inventory, Rachel Jackson & Chris Watkin, Selection & Development Review, Vol. 20, No. 6, December 2004

[3] Building Resilience by Martin E.P. Seligman, Harvard Business Review, April 2011

[4] Reivich & Shatte, The Resilience Factor: Seven Essential Skills for Overcoming Life’s Inevitable Obstacles (2003).

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