Research: 7 Ways to Become a More Resilient Leader

March 29, 2021

Happy Leader

A resilient leader is a person who sees failures as temporary setbacks they can recover from quickly. They maintain a positive attitude and a strong sense of opportunity during periods of turbulence. When faced with ambiguity, a resilient leader finds ways to move forward and avoids getting stuck. Many studies have indicated the importance of resilience as both an individual and a leadership trait.

At Zenger Folkman, we created an assessment that measures resilience along with nine other leadership competencies. We collected data on more than 500 leaders. The assessment used ratings from managers, peers, direct reports and others on 40 behaviors. We were interested in the impact of leaders who rated highest on resilience (the top 10%) versus those rated at the (bottom 10%). When we looked at ratings of overall leadership effectiveness, it is obvious that the most resilient leaders are viewed as the most effective leaders as well. The graph below shows the different ratings for the two groups.

Zenger Folkman Resiliency Study

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Having A Preference For Resiliency

We also created a self-assessment survey with a global database of more than 1,300 responses. We collected preference data on a variety of factors including resilience. When we looked at people with a strong preference for resilience, we found they were quick to take action and act independently. The most resilient people were more reactive than thoughtful and more focused on action than relationships. They were also more willing to take risks and make decisions quickly. Being resilient as an individual, and being viewed as a resilient leader, requires that you bring others along with you.

 What Can Leaders Do To Demonstrate Resiliency?

To understand the key behaviors that help leaders demonstrate their resiliency we compared the most resilient leaders to the least on 37 behaviors and selected the top 20 that showed the most significant difference. We then factor analyzed the data and identified 7 factors. We believe that these are enabling behaviors that help individual leaders demonstrate their resilience to others. For a leader who is trying to be more resilient, we believe that improvement on even a few of these factors will help. 

Communicate Powerfully: Some individuals will often act individually and not inform others about what they are trying to do. When driving down the freeway, we always appreciate it when people signal before they change lanes. Signaling lets others know your intentions. The most resilient leaders are effective at communicating their intentions to others. They were willing to help others understand a new strategy or direction. Effective communication helps others understand changes, expectations, and new directions.

Are Coachable: Resilient leaders are open to feedback and often asked others for feedback. Once feedback is given they also demonstrate a real effort to improve. They have a strong desire to continuously improve their skills and abilities. These leaders were both humble and coachable. As we look at this skill we see that younger employees are often coachable, but many people become less coachable as they age. The most resilient leaders, however, continue to ask for feedback throughout their careers.

Build Positive/Trusting Relationships: Resilient leadership occurs when people can bring others along. By building trust and being open to differences, these leaders are able to create strong teams by building positive relationships. An individual may be willing to make a dramatic change, but it requires positive relationships to get others to support change.

Are Bold Risk Takers: Resilient individuals are willing to take bold risks and try new ideas. It is easy for most individuals to be stuck in a rut in which they continue to conduct work in the same way from year to year. That approaches works well until the world changes, requiring organizations to change or die. Resilient leaders are not afraid to take risks and make bold changes.

Develop Others: The most resilient leaders were not only interested in their own development but they are concerned about the development of others. Resiliency is needed when we encounter failure. Developing others helps everyone to learn from their mistakes. We continue to find that leaders who want feedback for themselves are more likely to give productive feedback and coaching to others because they want honest feedback as well.

Champion Change: Resilient leaders are willing to change and able to provide the leadership to ensure that the organization will also change. Change takes courage and requires a vision about where the organization is going. Resilient leaders embrace change and also encourage others to change.

Are Decisive: Making decisions is always difficult because no person has all the data or understands all eventualities. But organizations cannot move forward until a decision gets made. The most resilient leaders are effective at making decisions and moving forward. If they make the wrong decision, they are quick to make a different decision and move in another direction. The proverb by Cato “Swift and resolute action leads to success; self-doubt is a prelude to disaster” fits well here.

How To Be More Resilient

Resilient leaders are perceived more positively in an organization, but it’s sometimes difficult to understand specifically what a leader can do to be viewed as more resilient. The seven characteristics above are the result of research from more than 500 leaders. Choosing to improve on even a few of these factors will help you to be seen as more resilient.

-Joe Folkman

(This article first appeared on Forbes.)

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