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Maintaining Resilience as a Leader During Challenging Times


Expert Analysis from Valerie O’Keeffe, CEO of ClarityVP Consulting.

The word ‘resilience’ is often overused at times like these, particularly in the world of business leadership. Many think that leaders can simply flick a switch and shift into ‘resilience mode’ automatically. But, like myself, leaders are humans first with the same concerns as anyone else – and many of us have been rocked by recent events.

In my conversations with clients and colleagues, there is palpable and justified anxiety around how this pandemic will impact our lives. No one knows for sure, but the one thing we can control is how we react to this unprecedented situation.

This is especially true for business leaders. At times of crisis, others look to us for guidance and reassurance, and it is important that – where we can – we accept this responsibility and exercise it carefully.  

Brain power

But what exactly is resilience? In a nutshell, resilience is the innate capacity of the brain to bounce back from difficulty, and it is developed through experience. Any experience we have, whether positive or negative, causes neurons in the brain to fire. Repeated experiences make these same neurons fire again, and neurons that fire together ultimately wire together. The good news is that neuroplasticity facilitates the brain’s ability to adapt. We can retrain our brains to adjust to new circumstances, and this is something experts suggest we should encourage and stimulate.

Resilience in a crisis – how do we react?

For many of us, moments of crisis conjure up an abundance of negative past emotions. Times when we felt out of our depth or we made the wrong call even though we thought we were being brave.

All these feelings are valid, and our natural reaction is to avoid situations that might expose us to them again. Our old beliefs try to dominate our current reactions, but it is critically important that we override our instincts and create new patterns of behaviour.

Easier said than done, I know! However, understanding how your brain is wired and your ability to ‘unfasten’ learned reactions will help you to become more resilient as a leader.

Wired for negativity

As humans, our brains are pre-wired towards negativity – it’s that fight or flight urge in us when something harsh or unexpected happens. In The Chimp Paradox, Professor Steve Peters describes how the limbic part of our brain is unleashed when various scenarios are thrown at us.

This brings about both constructive and destructive reactions. And, sometimes, the destructive response brings with it that familiar inner voice of doubt.

As leaders, we need to listen more carefully to the logical part of our brain instead and stifle that doubting voice. Thankfully, neuroscience tells us that the brain can rewire new beliefs and behaviours. This, of course, needs active practice and must be grounded in your current reality – but it is possible.

So what’s the opportunity here?

Building resilience, and demonstrating it to your team, does require a bit of conscious planning. The great Robin Sharma employs several tactics for this, with one of his most powerful being ‘What’s the Opportunity Here?’ or the WTOH Question.

In times of adversity, leaders should look to the opportunities each situation offers and act responsibly to overcome – or at least minimise – any negative impact. True leaders acknowledge the circumstances and take responsibility . . . even when we don’t have all the answers, and resilience plays a major role in this.

Once you have a good sense of how you want to approach this challenge, bring it to life in a practical way. Look for genuine support from your team, and get them involved in developing potential solutions. And one key piece of advice: having a good sounding board, mentor or trusted associate is invaluable.

Some practical tips

To finish up, I’d like to leave you with some useful advice from Robin Sharma that can help you to maintain and enhance your resilience during these highly distressing times.

  1. Keep a positive morning routine. The first 60 minutes of the day really shape your perspective. Reading Sharma’s The 5AM Club has been transformational for me.
  2.  Have a wise and selective view of the news.
  3. Avoid toxic people right now. Focus your attention on people who give you energy.
  4. Overcommunicate. Maintain and protect people’s hope – build leaders, build confidence.
  5. Take time for yourself. Journalling allows personal time to process disappointment, and it gives you the opportunity to be grateful for what you have.
  6. Push mastery into the world. People are retracting; do the opposite.
  7. Use this time to develop your skills and competencies. Listen to podcasts, start an online course, find a mentor!

Let’s use this difficult time to show our resilience, dial up our leadership capabilities and protect the hope of those around us. That’s certainly something within our control.


The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness: 1st Edition 2012; Professor Steve Peters

The 5AM Club: Own Your Morning. Elevate Your Life. 1st Edition: 2018; Robin S Sharma