Can leaders learn how to become resilient?

A few years ago, I saw Geoff Dixon the former CEO of the Australian flagship carrier Qantas being interviewed by Helen Trinca, a leading local journalist.

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 that the turbulent environment of the airline industry meant new and unexpected challenges emerged almost every day. Being resilient was an essential trait for senior managers to be able to deal with this uncertainty and adversity.Given the increasingly turbulent and unpredictable times we live, I thought it would be interesting  furtherexplore the concept of ‘resilience’.

What is resilience?

Resilience as a concept has been keeping psychologists entertained for over 40 years. It can be defined simply as‘the ability to persist in the face of challenges and to bounce back from adversity’.

If I think about my experiences, resilient leaders are able to:

  • Deal effectively with pressure, maintain focus and energy and remain optimistic and persistent, even under adverse conditions. They also recover quickly from setbacks.
  • Actively problem solve with a calm and confident manner. They demonstrate learning agility – the ability to learn from each experience, positive or negative.
  • Maintain a focus on the things that matter when the going gets tough no matter whether it’s organisational change, meeting tight deadlines or pressure to perform.

Resilience and self-efficacy beliefs

I was buoyed to discover research showsthere are many teachable aspects of resilience – things like optimism, effective problem solving, self-efficacy, flexibility, impulse control and empathy.

For my PhD and subsequent research, I have focusedon the role ‘self-efficacy beliefs’ play in building resilient leaders and managers.  Self-efficacy refers to one’s belief in your personal agency, sense of control and confidence in your competence to successfully undertake a challenging task.

Empowerment and self-efficacy beliefs

The term, ‘self-efficacy’is becoming more widely used in management and leadership circles. It is our self-efficacy beliefs which underpin motivational ‘empowerment’, a management concept first popularised some 25 years ago.

Specifically, employee empowerment depends on boosting the self-efficacy beliefs of employees, managers and leaders so that they have both the confidence to perform their work tasks successfully while concurrently creating a strong sense of personal responsibility to undertake them.  (The old, carrots and sticks approach may stimulate an immediate response but it’s simply not sustainable.)

Back to resilience

Helping leaders develop their resilience depends on boosting their self-efficacy beliefs to cope with the range of challenging situations they face.  There are a number of ways to boost self-efficacy beliefs including practice (personal mastery), vicarious learning (role models) and feedback and coaching. The most effective method I’ve seen uses dialogic Organisational Development techniques such as Forum Theatre, Intensive Role-Play and Entertainment Education to boost self-efficacy. Futureblogs will go into each of these more thoroughly.

Given the turbulent workplace environment we now face due to digital disruption and generational change, many industries need to develop resilient leaders like those outlined by Geoff Dixon at Qantas. Our survival depends on it!

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