The modern world of work presents two constants for leaders to manage: an increase in the pace of change and a growing depth of complexity. A key ingredient to succeed in this volatile environment is resilience. Resilient leaders not only are able choose how they react, but they also are the key ingredient in building resilient organizations.

While some leaders are more resilient naturally because of their life experience, others are less so. The good news is that resilience is a learnable skillset. Part of that learning entails a focus on three elements.

1. Know your triggers.

It’s hard not to be in awe of the advances we have made as a human species over the last number of years. However, with the latest insights in neuroscience, we are also appreciating how much of our behavior has its roots in our primal history. When we are faced with threats, we set in motion automatic behaviors developed to protect us and help us survive. In these circumstances, oxygen is siphoned away from the brain to other parts of the body to help us fight or flee. While this response clearly helped our species survive, it serves us less well when we perceive everyday business realities as threats and enter survival mode. It precisely at those moments we want to function at the highest of our abilities with our brains fully engaged.

Research by David Rock (2008) points to the reality that all of us are triggered by different types of threats. For some, it is a challenge to our status; for others, it’s being left out of a group or discussion. Resilient leaders are acutely aware of the type of threat that triggers them into an automatic functioning. They know the tell-tale physical signs, such as increased heart rate, dry mouth and shaking legs and are able shortcut these reactions so they can give a more thoughtful response.


2. Set the tone.

All organizations are a web of relationships. As such, our behaviors have impact and permeate the whole organizational system. This interconnectedness has important implications for the role of leaders, as their influence has great weight. Leaders set the tone, and others take their cue from that tone. How often in our organizations does the boss walk in with a bad mood and sets in motion a ripple effect that leads to closed doors, less conversation and avoidance for the rest of the day? This response, in turn, leads to less creativity, more black-and-white thinking and seeking a quick fix.

However, the opposite is also true. Through their behaviors, resilient leaders can influence how others react to stress and adversity. They can set a tone of curiosity, which welcomes new perspectives, and are able to live with the tension of not having an immediate answer. Each day, resilient leaders are very deliberate in the mood and tone they are setting, knowing their impact is felt far beyond the people with whom they have immediate contact.


3. Transform stress.

What can a leader do in organizations that are highly anxious and reactive?

They can choose through their presence to project less anxiety. In their book “Resilient Leadership,” Bob Duggan and Jim Moyer use the metaphor of an electrical transformer to illustrate this concept. When travelling abroad, we can use a transformer to adjust the electrical current up or down so our personal electronics can work. In the same way, though their confidence, calm and focus, resilient leaders are able to take heightened levels of anxiety and transform them down. This less anxious presence can impact the whole organization. Some of the behaviors that less anxious leaders embody are an ability to ask questions for deeper understanding, a focus on facts rather than subjective judgments and the ability to inject humor to dissolve tension.

In today’s hectic pace, two things leaders seldom have are time and space. However, resilient leaders see the vital need to insert both each day so they can choose the quality of their presence at work, monitor if they have been triggered and make the necessary correction, and consciously choose how they react to the stress of the people around them.