How to harness resilience to prepare for a great leadership career

How to harness resilience to prepare for a great leadership career

Resilience in leadership
A great leader recovers from failure quickly. They know that setbacks and turbulence are simply part of the job.

So anyone developing their leadership career would be wise to also consider how they can work on developing their resilience: to determine just how they will remain optimistic and positive in front of their teams, no matter what the situation.


This is Part Nine of the Women’s Agenda Emerging Leaders Playbook, supported by Charles Sturt University. See the introduction here

See all parts in this series here.

Indeed, in one of her final speeches as the CEO of Westpac, Gail Kelly said resilience is essential for leaders, and credited it with aiding her career. She said there are times in leadership when you’re going to have to work late nights and into the weekend, and you need to be physically and mentally tough to get through it. You need to be able to get up from the setbacks and the exhaustion, and do it again the next day.

Dr Denise Wood, a course director at Charles Sturt University, says resilience in leadership is about having an optimistic view of the world, something that’s easier said than done, but something that can be worked on and practiced continuously. From a leader’s perspective, that means not only having that optimistic view yourself, but also guiding others to have it too. “It’s that sense that things will pass. Sometimes you have to buckle down,” says Dr Wood. “Sometimes it’s all about hard work and you have to know it will be hard work and just keep going. But with set goals, you can remain clear on your focus and what you’re doing.”

Leadership coach Ellie Brown also says that resilience is a key aspect of successful leadership – especially given the pace of change in the world. “I’ve had tough things happen to me. I always try to say or think, ‘This is crap at the time, but what have I learnt from this? Why has it come my way? How will I move forward?’ The thing is you can’t just throw in the towel, especially if you’re a leader.”

Resilience takes practice. It’s something that can be worked on every day – utilised during the smaller setbacks in order to feel well trained and well prepared for the bigger ones that come up.

The following tips will help you build resilience

Look for the lesson, and encourage those you lead to do so too

Adversity – especially when it stems from some kind of personal or team failure – can offer valuable lessons, as long as you’re prepared to search for what those lessons are and to be open to what they might teach you. Seek to find a lesson in whatever it is that goes wrong in your day, and use optimistic language openly that consistently shares how valuable such lessons are.

Learn to place situations in context

Retain a solid media consumption and reading habit in order to stay in touch with what’s really going on in the world. This will not only keep you informed, but also enable you to consistently stay in touch with wider issues and challenges that may help you put the smaller adversities going on in your office in the context of what matters outside of it.

Have a positive attitude

Staying positive is essential, and is again something that Gail Kelly referenced when she spoke about resilience as being a significant factor in her career. Positivity means that when the day or work is tough, or when you’ve made a mistake, you will feel positive and enthusiastic about being able to move on.

Turn lemons into lemonade

Tracey McLeod, the CEO of White Ribbon Australia, has seen plenty of business setbacks in her career, particularly in the not-for-profit sector. She says rather than deal with what others might perceive to be a disaster, she looks at it as an opportunity – to work smarter, to overhaul something, to pivot to something new. “I don’t fold easily with change, or something that will have a negative impact on an organisation,” she says. “I keep moving. I look for how to make lemonade out of the lemons. Some may call that a mindset, rather than resilience.”

Work on your self-awareness and appreciate its importance

Being self-aware of your talents, reactions and internal biases can help you think periods of adversity through and better determine how to deal with them. Rather than simply blaming or hating yourself following a failure or setback – or deflecting to blame somebody else – self-awareness will enable you to slow down, consider what you might be able to offer to the situation and work at finding a solution or lessons in what’s gone wrong.

Rethink how you perceive stress

Stress, or how you think about stress, can be a key factor in seeing you falter and collapse during periods of adversity. suggests that it helps to reframe how you perceive stress: to acknowledge that it exists and to question what you can learn from it, rather than simply how you can eliminate it (which is often the default position we land on). Know what you can and can’t control – you can probably control more than you think – and know that you have the ability to change how you perceive the things you can’t control.

Stay physically active and well

During periods of work-related adversity or high stress, it’s tempting to immediately cancel exercise plans and/or to default to eating poorly. Don’t do this. Rather, see putting an emphasis on your physical wellbeing during such periods as more vital than ever. Make the time to stay active and to eat well. It’ll help you recharge, and train you to be at your physical best, no matter what comes up.

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