Business Management
8 min read

Resilient Leadership: how to overcome obstacles to become a better leader

EHL Insights
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Against the backdrop of uncertain markets, record inflation, and the IMF forecast for global growth to decelerate from 3% this year to 2.9% in 2024, well below the historical average, it is particularly important for resilient leadership to become one of the most desired skills in the workplace. No matter what industry, obstacles are plentiful in today's business landscape therefore leaders must equip themselves with the skills to overcome setbacks and support the well-being of themselves and their teams during difficult times, while the most successful and resilient leaders also find ways to grow from challenging situations. This article will explain what resilient leadership is and how you too can adopt this mindset to become a more desirable leader. 

Rethinking leadership development

As the world is in the midst of several economic shocks since the COVID crisis, businesses may be tempted to cut spending on leadership development in an effort to balance the books. However, it is at this time more than ever that appropriately skilled leaders can play their part in righting the ship.

With the correct focus, smaller budgets need not necessarily cause development quality to be sacrificed. Instead, of letting go of our grip on the way development has been pursued in the past, we can embrace the reality of the present and the future. Rethinking development will mean being open to different technological solutions and affording soft skills the importance they deserve. Venturing into this new world, executive coaching will play a significant role with new trends emerging to meet the altered demand.

Sometimes adversity is what you need to face in order to become successful.


Zig Ziglar, American Author.

What are the main traits of resilient leaders?

According to Verywell Mind, resilience is what gives people the psychological strength to cope with stress and hardship. It is the mental reservoir of strength that people are able to call on in times of need to carry them through without falling apart. Psychologists believe that resilient individuals are better able to handle adversity and rebuild their lives after a struggle.

In a professional environment, leaders typically display resilience in several ways:

  • Instead of falling into despair or hiding from problems with unhealthy coping strategies, resilient people face difficulties head-on.
  • They are unflappable in the face of intense and stressful situations, even those that are totally unexpected or out of the ordinary.
  • They possess a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty and are able to quickly adapt to these new circumstances.
  • They look after their own mental and physical well-being - knowing that they need a good bill of health in order to perform at the optimal level.
  • They are measured and confident in how they communicate at all times which instills confidence in their leadership.
  • They have a good handle on reality, both in terms of being able to put mistakes or setbacks into perspective and also by setting achievable goals.
Watch: Resilience: The Future of the Hospitality Industry

10 practices for developing resilient leadership skills

Fortunately, resilience is not innate (something that you are either born with or not), it's a skill that can be developed. The following section aims to help leaders and aspiring leaders to start practicing behaviors and initiating actions that can support them in becoming more resilient in what is currently a turbulent and challenging environment.

  1. VUCA-bility
  2. Never stop learning
  3. Hybrid team management
  4. Be an empathetic leader
  5. Fine-tune your communication style
  6. Build a support network
  7. Be realistically optimistic and set S.M.A.R.T goals
  8. Delegate and streamline to optimise efficiency
  9. Develop healthy habits inside and out of the workplace
  10. Develop a professional development plan

Let us take a closer look at these all-important steps to becoming a resilient leader and how to implement them.


1. Agility and resilience in VUCA times

The COVID-19 crisis has created the epitome of VUCA environments: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Under these circumstances, what's needed is the ability to react quickly to change, demonstrating flexibility and agility in merging planned activities with adapted ones or changing course entirely.

Resilient leaders demonstrate a positive attitude and the foresight to deal with the expected and unexpected alike, often working to newly cropped budgets. With leaders under pressure as a matter of course, they will need to be able to reprioritize at the drop of a hat, without losing sight of the bigger picture. They will also need to understand that sometimes the best leadership strategy is to admit to not having all the answers, knowing when to bring in the experts to make sure all business decisions are based on solid information and not cognitive leadership bias.


2. Become a continuous learner

One of the daily habits identified in great leaders is setting aside a block of time each day to read. In the article Kamyar Shah, World Consulting Group, explains: "Short of a disaster that has to be dealt with, that [reading] time is non-negotiable and will stay off limits for any other activity".

The article goes on to discuss the importance of adopting a learning mindset. "Intentionally adopting a learning mindset creates the space for openness and curiosity and allows you to show up as a relentless learner. - Palena Neale, Ph.D, unabridged.

Becoming a resilient leader requires you to be constantly evolving with the times, and that includes your skill set and your entire belief system. By consciously becoming a lifelong learner thanks to reading, researching, taking up professional courses or certificates or simply speaking to others, you're allowing yourself to grow and evolve organically.


3. Managing hybrid teams

More companies are accommodating remote work to various degrees and greater flexibility with working hours. Add to this the growing significance of the gig economy, and it is clear that managing employees is becoming more complex.

To make remote and hybrid work patterns successful while safeguarding productivity and efficiency, leaders will need to know how to foster strong, cohesive teams, despite the obvious gap between team members at the office and those working from home. Enabling factors may include an adapted workplace featuring more communal work areas rather than designated desk spaces or processes reimagined for virtual and hybrid teams. All in all, this requires a totally new and more flexible leadership style.

4. Communicating with candor

At times like these, both the preconditions for business and the spectrum of realistic business outcomes are subject to rapid change. This propels communication to the forefront of operational activities, aiming to keep all stakeholders up to date. In both internal and external communications, leaders are therefore called upon to communicate effectively with different purposes and target audiences in mind.

The antidote to the overwhelming whirlwind of information and shifting circumstances is simple: clear, candid, consistent, reliable, fact-based information. When anxiety and cynicism loom large, there is no place for misleading half-truths or irresponsible optimism. Much less an absence of information overall. This calls for a certain humility, self-awareness, openness to feedback, and a steady flow of communication both on and offline.

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5. Genuine relationships through empathy

Employee burnout seems to be on the rise in recent years, and it's no coincidence that this rise coincided with a rise in working from home. Reawakening enthusiasm for daily business among frazzled, long-isolated employees requires sensitivity and emotional intelligence. The pandemic left many people in need of human connection and understanding and they go into the office to seek those human relationships with their colleagues. Leaders must remain vigilant of mental health issues, issues around work-life balance and childcare, or a loss of passion for the job.

Showing employees empathy may be as easy as listening with genuine interest. It may involve offering encouragement or incentives. In some cases, it may include referring employees for counseling or deciding to put a halt to a meeting to accommodate staff’s need for a change of pace or some fresh air. Leaders who understand how to cultivate meaningful relationships with their staff are more likely to be able to rally the troops.


6. Build your support network

They say no man [or woman] is an island, meaning no one is 100% self-sufficient and the best leaders know they cannot achieve greatness alone. This section refers to more than just teamwork skills. Of course, working as part of a team and organization is an essential skill at every level of business, however, this refers in particular to a network of individuals you entrust to be your support network. Becoming a resilient leader doesn't mean you make your problems go away, it simply means you deal with problems in a better way. Therefore sharing your problems with colleagues, friends, a spouse or a family member can help you to not only feel better about them but also feel like you have someone in your corner.

Furthermore, your support network can give you valuable insights and advice from a range of alternative perspectives and you can use them as a sounding board for new ideas.


7. Be optimistic with realistic goals

Resilient leaders tend to have an air of confidence and optimism in everything they do, and optimism is a vital ingredient in leadership. Intel co-founder Robert Noyce, once said that optimism is “an essential ingredient of innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places?". When the macroeconomic environment is not looking great, resilient leaders have the power to look beyond it and seek out opportunities to thrive. They see the bigger picture, they play the long game and these leaders tend to have the ability to inspire those around them to share that vision for the future.

However, to become a resilient leader this optimism on one hand is underpinned by realism on the other. According to job platform, Indeed, setting tough but realistic goals "ensures that both leaders and teams thrive by meeting their goals and feeling a sense of accomplishment." They go on to explain that goals should be S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-based).


8. Look for opportunities to increase efficiency

Feeling as though you have to do every task yourself is known as micromanagement - this is not a trait of resilient leadership. Many leaders are resistant to delegation as they fear losing control over important tasks, missing critical deadlines, and seeing a reduction in quality - but contrarily, helping team members to excel on their own is a key element to them in turn enabling you to flourish as a leader.

Learning how to delegate is one of the most important skills any leader can acquire. But not every task can be delegated, so knowing which tasks to delegate, when, and to whom is something that takes time to become adept at. Successful delegation frees leaders from operational tasks which may be time-consuming and/or repetitive in order to put that time back into strategic thinking and other non-delegatable tasks. However, simply dumping your own mundane tasks onto someone else's desk is not delegating.

According to Mind Tools, by creating structure around your delegated tasks you can still maintain some control:

  • Discuss timelines and deadlines.
  • Agree on a schedule of checkpoints at which you'll review project progress.
  • Make adjustments as necessary.
  • Take time to review all submitted work.
  • Give credit to the right person so that their hard work is acknowledged. 


9. Develop healthy rituals

The questions around work-life balance have become increasingly prominent in recent years with the rise of remote and hybrid working which its supporters say helps them to develop a healthy lifestyle around their work. Whether it's taking business calls whilst on a brisk morning walk or training for a marathon, resilient leaders know they need to keep their body and mind in top condition to perform their best in business.

According to this Forbes article on the daily habits of great leaders, integrating a daily physical fitness routine prepares leaders for the mental and intellectual challenges they face.


10. How to create a professional development plan

The number one takeaway from this article is that real resilient leadership means having an awareness that you're not a finished product yourself; there is always room to learn, evolve, and grow professionally. Benjamin Franklin once said: “an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”Taking the time to create a professional development plan gives structure to such growth and keeps you on track.

Firstly, what is a professional development plan (PDP)? According to the work management platform, Asana, a PDP is "an ever-changing document that assesses your current skill set, helps you set career goals, create strategies, and uncover resources that will help you reach them."

In order to build your own professional development plan, you need to conduct a self-assessment of your current professional situation, set your goals, and then map out the steps that must be taken in order to achieve them. Consider the resources you will need to draw on, including executive education options and the timeline you'll be working to. Remember, as resilient leadership is centered around being adaptable to change, your PDP must also be an evolving document. Set aside some time periodically to review and amend it as well as measure your progress to date.

Business requires resilient leaders to weather inevitable storms; they will also need a generous helping of human creativity and innovation. Sustainably breathing life back into the economy will call for imaginative solutions driven by resilient leaders. So go forth and get comfortable being uncomfortable.

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