Leadership Resilience: Will You Grow or Crash?

Challenge and hardship can be great teachers.

In the 1990s, the Center for Creative Leadership found that over one third of leaders learned significant lessons from hardships like job loss, career setbacks and personal challenges. Since then, life and work has become even more complex. Leaders are called to do more and to do it better with less resources. We face more “opportunities to learn” now than ever.

Unfortunately, hardship doesn’t guarantee growth and development.

The pressures of change and adversity can cause leaders to crash and burn. Research bears this out, and so does our own observation and experience.

Some grow through change and hardship, and others get stuck or derailed.  What makes the difference?


Resilience is the ability to handle stress and adversity. It’s the ability to bounce back and recover quickly, to adapt and flex – not break – under pressure.

For example, Juan (not his real name) faced intense hardship. He was an executive leader who lost his job at a top company. After searching unsuccessfully for a similar senior role, he took a job he didn’t want for far less money and prestige. Then, several in his family experienced serious health issues – some life-threatening.

Yet Juan persevered. There were times he felt like he was hanging by a thread. But he has an attitude of optimism, faith and humility – even though he is still in the midst of these challenges. He keeps focused on what is most important in life. He is friendly and not bitter, hopeful and yet realistic.

He is demonstrating resilience.

How do you become more resilient? And how do you help others become more resilient?

  • Understand the cause(s) of the adversity. E.g., if you’re working 80 hours a week and stressed out, is this due to (a) your boss giving you too much work, (b) poor planning or (c) your inability to say “no” and set healthy limits? Or (d) something else?
  • Prioritize professional and personal growth and development. Before you ever get in the pressure-cooker, be proactive about gaining varied experiences, training, and ongoing mentoring and coaching. Getting regular and accurate feedback is a key part of this. Keeping your skills current and relationships thriving helps performance, confidence, and marketability – especially through tough times.
  • Seek extra support during transitions. When taking on a new role, losing a supportive boss, or facing an organizational change, it takes extra energy. This is true in personal transitions, too, such as a birth, death, move or relationship challenge. It’s sadly ironic that when we are under extra stress we often cut off ourselves (and others) from the very support we need to energize and sustain us through the hardship: extra communication, supportive relationships, rest, exercise, fun, etc.

Just as change and challenges are inevitable realities, so is the eventual failure of a leader without resilience. Thankfully, resilience is a muscle we can all build. Where might you exercise or strengthen your resilience?

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults who helps leaders and organizations improve effectiveness and resilience. You can reach him at jbaker@www.people-results.com or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.