Resilience: The 5 Keys to Becoming a Resilient Leader

“Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” ~ Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela had a way with words and the above quote exemplifies leadership. It is often not how you deal with success that defines who you are as a leader and a person, but how you deal with adversity.

If there is one thing I have learned as a CEO of a small company, it is that there will be many bumps in the road – often unexpected and sometimes business critical. Understanding resilience and managing through the tougher times is necessary to ensuring that you and the company get to the next sale, meet that key project milestone or achieve a long-term strategic goal.

I have outlined my 5 keys to being a resilient leader which I have learnt through trial and error. I wish a college course focused purely on overcoming adversity was available, as this skill is just as important as learning how to build a new widget and implementing a marketing plan.

Key 1: Build a great team around you and empower them

This is one of the top two most important rules. Make sure you have a capable and reliable team that helps manage the organization through the opportunities and issues. There are many cases of leaders taking on too much personally, thereafter struggling to handle the pressures of the situation. A recent article published by Korn Ferry highlights a perfect example of Tesla’s CEO and chairman, Elon Musk’s revelations of his work habits and health, questioning concerns whether Musk is still fit to lead.

It is one thing to build a great team, but they won’t stick around if you don’t empower them. This is not only critical when you share successes, but also essential when you have challenges, which necessitates the allocation of tasks to rectify the situation to get the company back on the right track.

Key 2: Acknowledging there is a problem

Many leaders fail at this most fundamental task. If your company has a culture of hiding problems, they will go unaddressed. Create a “see it, own it and fix it” culture.

When Alan Mulally took over at Ford Motor Company he identified this principle as one of his top priorities in turning the company around – identifying and owning process problems. This article on ‘Alan Mulally and Accountability’ brings to light one of his true leadership qualities, which was to hold people accountable with tough love, providing a brilliant example of Mulally’s leadership approach.

Key 3: Ensure you have intermediate and long-term goals

When “the stuff hits the fan” and your team is deep in the weeds in trying to resolve the situation, it is always easier to see a glimmer of light if you know where you are headed in the long run. It is very easy to get so caught up in getting a process or people issue resolved that you forget to do the rest of your day job.

Companies that have a clear and consistent vision and business plan for the next 2-3 years are typically better equipped to deal with a crisis when it hits. The team knows where they are heading, what the vision is and what needs to be accomplished. This combination assists in providing the needed perspective and a framework for resolving issues in tough times.

Key 4: Understand you and your company’s limitations

Through my experience, the fundamental key elements to resilience and avoidance of making mistakes that features most, is for one to be completely knowledgeable on your company and your team’s limitations. There are plenty of examples where companies grow too quickly or enter markets where they do not have experience; suffering the brutal consequences. Understanding your limitations – both capital and human is one of the key foundations of not only reducing potential issues, but having the bandwidth to get through them as they occur.

Key 5: Maintain a healthy work – life balance

Some might argue against this factor being a key element, but I maintain it might very well be the most important. Taking the time in a crisis to exercise, spend time with family or take just a moment of peace will allow you to gain perspective and, more than likely, renew optimism about the future. Many people suspend their normal lives during a business crisis and this threatens perspective, not only about the issues facing the company, but also potentially damages family and other relationships. Some of my best ideas and thoughts are generated when I am exercising or simply using my brain for other creative activities. A good example is Steve Jobs, who was famous for thinking, reflecting and strategizing whilst out walking. A healthy balance between work and life helps – in good and bad times.

Resilience is the ability to confront brutal facts and to continuously learn despite these setbacks, as this is what ultimately makes one a successful Leader! There is no rule book when it comes to resilience with one having to constantly master the art of recovering from obstacles, adapting well to change and keep going in the face of adversity.


Author: Derek Morkel, CEO