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Building Resilient Leaders


Knocks and challenges come hard and fast in management but Champions are mentally tough enough to cope with those demands, to bounce back quickly, to learn from their experience (including mistakes) and to move forward.

Resilient leaders are those people that stand the test of time.

Arguably there is no more exacting test of a manager’s ability and durability than football league management where the average length in a job has fallen to just over one season. So what is it about the Sir Alex Fergusons (27 seasons), Howard Wilkinsons (22 seasons) and Arsene Wengers (21 seasons) that sets them apart?

To a great extent it is their ability to perform effectively under pressure – pressure from owners, shareholders, fans, mass media, social media, players and so on.  Their ability to perform under pressure comes down to one key thing: their resilience.

Understanding Resilience

Pressure, stress and knock-backs are constants in the life of leaders, and nowhere more so than in football. How well a leader copes with pressure and how quickly he or she is able to bounce-back has a major impact on their performance, health, wellbeing and ultimately their effectiveness as a leader.

Although we use the words ‘pressure’ and ‘stress’ interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Whilst all leaders are exposed to pressure in the modern era, not all react in the same way. Some deal with pressure very well and experience lower levels of stress than others. In the language of performance psychology they are equipped with better resilience skills.

Personal Resilience

Naturally before we can become effective managers of others we need to understand and manage ourselves effectively. We need to optimise our ability to cope with pressure – predictable and unpredictable.

As Psychologists we define resilience as having the ability to:

  • think clearly under pressure;
  • know what to focus on when under pressure;
  • keep our response in proportion to the level of threat.

Resilience also means being smart about how we recover from stressful periods and ensuring that recovery is built into our routine in a sustainable way.

Developing Personal Resilience

At Cognacity we have been training people to develop their resilience (aka mental toughness) for almost a decade. Our approach to training leaders across business and sport hinges on the following critical point … most people are not born resilient, they learn the skills over time.

Professionals who react well under pressure, such as Special Forces personnel, emergency service teams and A&E medical specialists, were not born with these skills. They acquire them through many hours of practice during which they learn what to focus on and how to react – often through trial and error under supervision.

When resilient individuals such as these encounter adversity, their thoughts are immediately along the following lines:

“This is manageable” ….. “It will probably go away quickly if we manage things appropriately” ….. “It is just this one more situation” ….. “I can do something positive about this.”

They don’t tend to think:

“Oh my God what is going on?” ….. “This will end in disaster!” …. “I am out of my depth, the best thing to do is ignore this.”

Resilient people learn to carefully analyse their beliefs and emotions about failure, and to avoid describing failure as permanent, pervasive and out of their control — interpretations that undermine mental resilience.

The good news is that these resilient thinking and behaviour skills can be readily taught and even better: small sustained changes in our thinking and behaviour can lead to significant benefits in health and performance.

The simple science of resilience

We teach people how to develop mental resilience using the latest in cognitive behavioural science by focusing on these four areas:

  • Thinking – what is actually going on when we think?
  • Perception – how accurate is our appraisal of events under pressure
  • Attitude – do we react automatically to stressful situations or can we control our responses
  • Behaviour – what exactly are we doing before, during and after stressful events

The basic ABC model of thoughts / perceptions / emotions and behaviours helps us to identify the common thinking errors that are happening automatically and adjust them in such a way that we can reduce the pressure we experience in real time.

Research shows that working on these areas with small groups (12-20 employees) in a 1 day training programme with follow on 1-to-1 coaching sessions can lead to significant improvements in personal resilience.

Developing and Building Resilient Leaders

Once personal resilience is developed we move on to look at how these skills can be sustained, how they apply to high performing teams and how leadership approaches and communication styles can impact positively and negatively on those we manage.

How often do you we see teams that are struggling as a result of the way in which they are being led?

Passing it on

Leaders are in a unique place to act as stress buffers or stress amplifiers to those reporting on them. Which would you rather be?

Coping with the tough times

How do leaders deal with errors, mistakes and set-backs? Is it the Ostrich manoeuvre, the fight/flight approach or the balanced look in the mirror? Have they got the integrity, honesty and guts to take responsibility for their role in negative outcomes? And how do they communicate with those around them who have underperformed?

Leading by example

Are you a leader who can honestly say “Do as I do?” rather than “Do as I say?”

Just like our personal resilience our leadership characteristics can be shaped and developed through training.

Ultimately we all have a choice: how resilient and effective a person and leader do we really want to be?

Building resilient leaders: the benefits

  • Improved mindset for dealing with periods of uncertainty
  • Improved physical and psychological wellbeing
  • Improved mental fitness and resilience
  • Better task focus
  • Problem-solving focus and ability to think clearly under pressure
  • Improved performance
  • Increased ability to sustain performance during periods of high demand.
  • Reduced likelihood of suffering from anxiety and depression
  • More effective immune system
  • Better sleep
  • Lower risk of heart attack

Low resilience – spotting the signs:

  • Excessive sarcasm
  • Loss of mental clarity
  • More prone to distractions and mistakes
  • Being edgy and irritable
  • Not able to relax and sleep
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Struggling to motivate yourself and others

The following can all make us less resilient:

  • Excessive weight
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Regular time-zone changes
  • Social isolation
  • Desk-bound lifestyles
  • Constant stress and anxiety
  • Stimulant and alcohol misuse

The Cognacity “Leading for Resilience” Workshop is equipped with the latest insights from the world of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. If you’re interested in building resilient leaders within your organisation, please call the Cognacity Team on 0207 182 4132 for further details.

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