Can Leaders Learn to be Resilient?

There has been a long running debate about whether leaders are born or made.Certainly the business world believes they can be made. Google ‘leadership development’ and you get over a quarter of a BILLION hits. has over 400 books tagged by customers on the subject of leadership development. In fact a whole industry has sprung up to prove that leaders can be made. Indeed, every large company seems to have a leadership development program in place to prepare its leaders for the future. Who hasn’t been asked to complete a 360 degree feedback form to rate their manager or a peer on their ‘leadership’ performance and skills? But if many facets of being a successful leader are genetic or formed during one’s developmental years, is all this effort and expenditure worthwhile? Can leaders be developed?

While I don’t have a definitive answer, I do believe a number of key characteristics of being a successful leader can be learnt. One of these essential ingredients is resilience, a term not often associated with leadership in my experience. A few years ago, I saw Geoff Dixon the former CEO of Qantas being interviewed by Helen Trinca from AFR Boss at a UNSW ‘Meet the CEO’ event. Helen asked Geoff what the number one trait he looked for in his management team and his answer surprised me: “Resilience”. The reason he gave was the turbulent environment of the airline industry meant that almost every day threw up a new, unexpected challenge and being resilient was essential in order to be able to deal with the uncertainty and adversity. The recent turmoil at Qantas certainly highlights the wisdom of Geoff’s insight.

So what does it mean to be resilient? A simple definition is that resilience is the ability to persist in the face of challenges and to bounce back from adversity.

• Resilient leaders deal effectively with pressure; maintain focus and energy and remain optimistic and persistent, even under adversity and recover quickly from setbacks.

• Resilient leaders are able to problem solve with a calm, confident sense of being able to overcome adversity. They approach challenges with learning agility: the ability to learn from each experience, positive or negative.

• Resilient leaders maintain a focus on the things that matter when the going gets tough; whether organisational change, meeting tight deadlines or pressure to perform.

Resilience has been studied by psychologists for 40 years and the good news is that research has shown there are many aspects of resilience are teachable such as optimism, effective problem solving, self-efficacy, flexibility, impulse control and empathy, among others. My particular research interest is in the role ‘self-efficacy’ plays in building resilient leaders. Self-efficacy refers to one’s belief in their personal agency, sense of control and confidence in their competence to successfully undertake a challenging task. Developing coping mechanisms and persisting in the face of adversity is at the very heart of how self-efficacy works.

So what does everyone else think? Is resilience important for leaders and therefore for leadership development programs? Has anyone included resilience exercises in their training?

I’d love your feedback!

To learn more about the topic of resilient leaders…

Be Learning, Dr Richard Carter is Research and Development Manager at MGSM and Principal of Advanced Narrative. Richard’s PhD examined the influence of self-efficacy and employee engagement on work-related performance in organisational settings