The true measure of resilience in leadership


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Leaders need to understand how they react at different stages when facing difficulties

While many leaders can cope with extreme amounts of stress and pressure, everyone has a breaking point. Research from KPMG’s 2016 Global CEO Outlook found that 72% of CEOs believe that the next three years will be more critical for their industry than the last 50 have been, but that only 5% feel capable of dealing with this level of disruption.

Part of being human is facing difficulties. Sometimes these difficulties are swift and severe. Other times they can be an accumulation of small events. The big question is how we learn, recover and bounce back from these situations.

Some people struggle to change. They can become stuck in a mindset of learned helplessness. This type of pessimistic attitude is pervasive and so what we want is to encourage people to be optimistic; to recognise that when facing tough situations they have the power to change them by applying a different attitude and mindset, rather than remaining trapped by circumstance.

To get a true measure of resilience, a leader needs to understand how they react at different stages of facing difficulties. They need to bear in mind that they can be stronger or weaker in any of the four stages of the Thrive Cycle of Resilience: Survive, Adapt, Recover, and Thrive.


People differ in their resistance to stress. The capacity to remain calm, think clearly and act appropriately under adversity is largely determined by self-esteem and a capacity to manage emotions. At some point all individuals will respond negatively to stress, such as with emotional outbursts, self-criticism, ill health or giving up. The good news is that this stage is usually temporary until we learn to adapt to the situation.


Adapting to adversity is about halting any personal decline, adjusting to change, and preventing things from getting worse. This requires leaders to pay attention to feelings, reactions and behaviours, moving outside of their comfort zones, adapting to the situation, and drawing upon the support of others.

This is a necessary step before recovering to previous levels of performance.


The third stage is the ability to bounce back and return to how things were before the setback. This requires taking responsibility for oneself and not being a victim; actively finding solutions to problems; setting clear objectives; and having the self-belief, drive and determination to make this happen. Continuing recovery will progress into the Thrive phase of resilience.


The Thrive stage is about learning and growing stronger and wiser. This requires the ability to reflect on and learn from past experiences, build trusting and supportive relationships, and to behave consistently with our values and principles in life. This will equip leaders with the resilience to cope even better next time adversity strikes.

Leaders will face difficulties and sometimes the stress and pressure can get too much. They may become stuck in one or more of these stages. By understanding these four stages of the cycle - and where their own strengths and weaknesses are - leaders can grow and develop their resilience.

A useful starting point is to reflect on past experiences and review the following questions for each stage of resilience.

Jo Maddocks is co-founder of and chief psychologist at JCA Global

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