Why truly resilient leaders don't just "tough it out"

It's time to move on from the mindset ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Henley Business School professor Chris Dalton considers resilience in management, leadership, and organisational life.

by Chris Dalton
Last Updated: 05 Jul 2023
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It is noticeable that the harder times become, the louder the calls for resilience in management and leadership. Resilience is much sought after by businesses and, by extension, all employees. But what exactly is it, and do we have the correct understanding?

We often say resilience is a person’s ability to bounce back after a knock or challenge. Returning in a healthier state following failure or stress is appealing, but not at the expense of the capacity to handle a different change in the future.

The word resilience has Latin origins. Initially, it conveyed a sense of avoiding, of going to ground or stepping back. This older root is echoed in the verb ‘to resile’, a self-exclusion. While resilience should carry a person away from threat, this is often into hiding, across a drawbridge and behind a thick wall.

In the dictionary, resilience then switched this recoil to mean a rebound, a springing back to an original shape after a setback. This back-and-forth feeling established in our definition of resilience as overcoming a difficulty to get back to equilibrium is a mindset of ‘soldiering on’.

I think that’s bleak. Culturally, if resilience only means toughing it out, this will not foster the potential for a full life in a person, or a sustainable vision for an organisation. Perhaps we do require a management word for an “all hands to the pumps” type of grit and determination when the chips are down, but resilience is not that.

Finnish has a word, sisu, that conjures such a determined tenacity (to have sisu is, literally, to have guts). Tellingly, this can also be elevated to the national psyche. Japanese has ganbaru (literally, ‘stand firm’), which means, more or less, obsessively working on never giving up, and in the UK we have ‘the Dunkirk spirit’.  All have a dark edge to them.

When you practise resilience as dogged resistance in adversity, you may gain a thicker skin but at the cost of cutting yourself off from the outside world. That sort of resilience is rigid and brittle. What have we missed? Perhaps we are looking at this in the wrong way.

Anyone reaching extreme old age is invariably asked, “what is the secret of your long life?” Do we ask because we hope for a simple recipe we can follow? If so, this wishful view of resilience has a persistent survivor bias problem. It would be better to ask what was absent for those who did not make it that far. That, inevitably, will be much more complex and nuanced, but we can say a few things about it.

First, any revised definition of resilience must widen out, not close in. We must soften our edges, not harden them. Resilience is not the psychological experience of an individual within a field, resilience is the field. Reframing resilience as a description of all the relationships that hold a system together over time starts to move you in the right direction.

Resilience is built into the process of evolution. For at least 100,000 years, modern humans have been in tandem with context (nature and society) to adapt and re-adapt, and therefore resilience is how we grow and move forward. The limits of resilience are the limits of the system.

Our phenomenal successes in crossing thresholds of knowledge, tools, agriculture, trade, and technology are now shifting boundaries, putting even the biosphere under rapid and extreme stress. This is an existential question.

The conventional view of resilience as “x overcomes y” often ends up eroding a deeper capacity to endure. Resilience is present in a system when it can maintain diversity, flexibility, and open channels to and from the outside world, while at the same time keep just enough tension and firmness not to lose identity. Then it can handle disturbances and variation without compromising itself, and this means both x and y can repair themselves.

So, my definition is: “Resilience is a system’s capacity to maintain its shape as it changes its shape.”

This looks paradoxical, but you already have an example staring back at you when you look in the mirror. How you maintain your identity over time as a person is in context, and resilience covers that unavoidable relationship.

Your stability is a mass of processes in constant movement, adjustment and readjustment, most of which are beyond and independent of consciousness. You are a continual drama of creation and destruction, of stability in impermanence. And so is the organisation you work for, and the society you live in.

This wide view of resilience is what we need if we are sincere about tackling the bigger issues. To kick-start your thinking on this, consider these questions:

1. Diversity        

Are you making effective connections with others? How diverse is your organisation? Is your data predominantly from one source, or multiple? What resources need to be in place tomorrow to cushion you?

2. Participation        

Do you include others? Do others include you? How do you participate in decision-making – at home, work, and in society?   

3. Openness        

Are you open to learn? Are you open to dropping what you know when it no longer nourishes or contributes to well-being? 

4. Longevity        

Do you take the ‘long-run’ view (up to that one where we’re all dead)?  Can you see change at different speeds? What might be the unintended consequences of today’s decisions? Can you preserve the capacity to be resilient for future generations? 

Resilience is the goal of finding opportunities through change but not by exerting complete control. Resilience crosses thresholds, adapts, forms new relationships, and balances just enough of the old to absorb the new without losing integrity.

Dr Chris Dalton is associate professor of management learning at Henley Business School. He writes management books and teaches management learning and personal development on the Henley MBA.