The 5 key characteristics of resilient leadership

The Bailey Group | September 1, 2022 | Blog | 7 minute read

Change is a persistent feature of the modern business environment. Whether it's shifting consumer demands, emerging technologies, or mass resignations, organizations today must grapple with frequent disruptions that make it harder for them to sustain performance and growth.

Resilient leadership is a class of leadership skills that have become essential to success in today's business world. Resilient leaders possess a unique set of qualities — including positivity, humility, and confidence — that make them well-equipped to embrace change as an opportunity to adapt while mollifying the concerns of those around them to maintain engagement.

With resilient leaders at the helm, organizations are best positioned to navigate a constantly changing landscape and safeguard their future success with as little disruption as possible.

What is resilient leadership?

Resilient leadership refers to the ability of managers to work under pressure and cope with unexpected changes in the organization, market, economy, and other forces. Resilient leaders have the ability to adapt quickly, bounce back from unanticipated setbacks and get their organizations back on the road to success.

There are several industries where resilience is particularly beneficial. Those with a high degree of risk (like financial services firms) must have the ability to overcome the consequences of risks that don't work out. Others, like those that are exposed to public scrutiny (including oil and gas or media), must withstand the pressure that comes with the publicization of mistakes or questionable behavior.

However, resilience is critical to leadership and organizational success across all industries and company sizes. As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated, unexpected change and disruption are features of all industries, and the ability to manage these is crucial to long-term success.

Comparing resilient leadership with crisis leadership

While resilient leadership shares some characteristics with crisis leadership, there are important differences. Resilient leadership has a broader application because it isn't limited to crisis situations. Resilience is needed to overcome regular bumps in the road like economic downturns, bad performance years, employee pressure, and other negative trends that are simply part of running an organization.

Crisis leadership, on the other hand, is specifically tailored to the setbacks and disruptions that rise to the level of crisis, giving it a heightened sense of urgency. The skills required to manage a full-blown crisis overlap with those needed to handle more routine disruptions, meaning resilient leaders are almost always capable of demonstrating both forms of leadership.

Resilient leadership and the organization

Organizations with resilient leaders at the helm are better able to manage and overcome change with confidence and steady-handedness, ensuring everyone stays engaged with their work and committed to the organization's overarching mission even as it works through disruptions.

Further, resilient leaders cascade their best qualities down to the rest of the organization. Middle managers tend to model their leadership behaviors on those of senior leadership, and when top leaders demonstrate resilient qualities, it naturally causes those characteristics to manifest at all levels of the organization.

This has a positive effect on the organization as a whole, as junior staff can go to work every day knowing that leaders across the organization are fully confident and secure in their abilities to weather storms and keep the company moving forward.

Organizations without resilient leaders are at a disadvantage

Conversely, if leadership teams fail to cultivate resilience, the organization might be at serious risk. This starts at the very top. Leaders might struggle to make new decisions because they have difficulty moving on from other challenges or mistakes. They might also have a hard time prioritizing their responsibilities, which can cause the organization at large to focus on the wrong tasks.

Leaders who lack resilience might also struggle to resolve conflicts, both between them and their colleagues as well as other team members. This not only causes resentment and tension to linger, but it also models bad behavior for the rest of the organization, possibly leading to unresolved conflict across the entire company.

Just as good leadership qualities cascade down to the rest of the organization, middle managers and junior staff will model their own style on poor leadership. This can create a highly negative and toxic work environment that could lead to mental health issues, personal and professional struggles, and even damaged customer relationships.

The 5 core qualities of the resilient leader

Resilient leaders tend to exhibit the following qualities and characteristics:

1. Positivity

A positive outlook is essential when change takes place. Employees might fear for the future, which could cause them to drift into confusion and apathy. Resilient leaders know how to serve as a source of positivity and inspiration, even when the future is uncertain. They don't let turbulent times get them down, maintaining the same upbeat and positive attitude they do at all other times. This helps to ease the stresses of their team members and enables them to persevere through the crisis.

Their optimism doesn't make them unrealistic, however. They are honest with their teams about the situation and display their authentic emotions. They don't pretend to know information that they don't really have, and they don't hide any feelings of concern or fear. But they make it apparent that despite all of the unknowns, they trust that brighter days are coming.

2. Confidence

Resilient leaders have the confidence and strength of conviction to identify new opportunities, take measured risks and make important decisions that are in the best interests of the entire organization. This usually involves sticking to their decisions yet also being open to receiving new information and adjusting the path forward accordingly.

Importantly, they understand that they cannot please everybody all of the time and will face (sometimes fierce) resistance over some of their decisions. They have the confidence to stay committed to their decisions even against this adversity while also displaying the empathy skills needed to engage with dissenters and ensure their concerns are heard.

3. Humility

Resilient leaders also have a healthy degree of humility to counterbalance their confidence. They understand that there is no singular correct way to do things, and they know that good ideas can emerge from all quarters of the organization. They maintain an open mind, listen to feedback and are unafraid to adjust their approach or strategy if new information or more effective approaches come to their attention.

Their humility also enables them to acknowledge their mistakes publicly and openly. They don't run from criticism, and they consider mistakes as an opportunity to engage with the rest of the organization and learn how to improve their performance.

4. Strategic

Resilient leaders are naturally strategic in their approach. They see change not only as a challenge to be overcome, but as a chance to learn and grow. They stay ahead by understanding how disruptions in the market will impact their organization, embracing change as an opportunity to implement better approaches, identify new customers, and create new streams of revenue.

They use the input they gather from the market to craft strategic visions for the future that others can buy into and believe in, while building the strategic plans needed to actualize their visions and vault their organizations into the future.

5. Forward-thinking

Resilient leaders constantly have their eyes on the future. They understand that change is simply a part of doing business, and dwelling on the negative for too long can paralyze organizations and make them uninspired and inflexible. They are experts at mobilizing individuals, teams, and organizations to look positively and confidently to the future, weathering storms as they come but keeping their eyes fixed on their ultimate goals.

The self-awareness and presence of resilient leaders is a critical part of inspiring others to embrace and overcome change. Great leaders understand that their attitudes and behaviors — good or bad — are infectious and that presenting a confident, firm, and optimistic demeanor in the midst of disruption can help make the rest of the organization more resilient.

Developing resilience in leadership

Working with a leadership coach is one of the most effective methods for building resilience. At The Bailey Group, we start each of our coaching engagements by taking the time to help clients better understand their own emotions, behaviors, and tendencies. This is central to our approach.

We conduct a series of unique leadership assessments that leverage our expertise in behavioral science, psychology, and business practices. As part of this process, we help leaders identify their stressors and better understand their reactions to specific circumstances. We use the information we gather throughout our assessment process to build a foundation for our coaching engagement, teaching clients how to self-manage so they can better lead themselves and, ultimately, their teams.

Skill cultivation

Two of the critical resilient leadership skills we help leaders develop are emotional intelligence and communication. That's because successful leaders must possess the emotional awareness to know how their words and actions are impacting others, as well as the communication skills needed to convey important information to their team members in a more appropriate and effective manner.

Critically, we want our clients to balance empathy with action. It isn't enough for them to take change by the horns and muscle their way through challenges. They also need to be vulnerable in front of their employees, admitting their mistakes and displaying their authentic emotions. It's important they don't lose touch with the personal side of leadership or they really risk alienating team members.

Finally, we stress the importance of taking time off and unplugging, carving out personal time every day, and committing to their physical and mental health. We work with leaders to develop healthy work-life balances to ensure they are physically and psychologically healthy enough to give their organizations their best selves. This is essential to staying calm and confident in the midst of change.

Check out our blog for more leadership insights from our team. If you're ready to level up your leadership capabilities, reach out to start a conversation.