Resilience: Nature or Nurture?

Sandy Wright | Director – Executive Coaching and NEURI

Explore resilience in ELEVEN's premier leadership programs, fostering strength, agility, and unwavering purpose in leaders and their teams.

Few doubt the importance of resilience for psychological health and success in our personal and professional selves. Throughout history, we’ve documented, celebrated and narrated how we’ve overcome and ‘bounced back’ from adversity. We admire the character-building that ensues from such experience.

These days, adversity and volatility are the new normal and we value resilience in our rapidly evolving environment. In this context, many are reconsidering the conventional view of resilience as simply ‘bouncing back’.

The human capacity for burden is like bamboo – far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.

Jodi Picoult

If we accept resilience is evolving to include longer-term persistence and reliance on inner resources, it’s important to examine what elements are required to prepare and reinforce our capability. The result is when even more challenging times occur, we’re ready.

Research into, and writings on resilience, from people such as Viktor Frankl and Martin Seligman, note some people exposed to adversity seem to weather it better than others. This has led some to think we’re either ‘born’ resilient or not. Many others and Seligman in particular, argue resilience can be a learned behaviour just as we can learn ‘helplessness’.

In a Harvard Business Review article from May 2002, Diane Coutu writes most of the theories of research into what behaviours indicate strong resilience, show overlap in their findings. Namely, that people learn or possess three important characteristics, which together will almost always guarantee resilience. Coutu describes these as “a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief [grounded by strong values] that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise.” Apparently, these are present in resilient organisations as well as individuals.

While optimism is important for resilience, having a clear-eyed and realistic acceptance of the seriousness of a situation is just as valuable. Leaders, individuals or organisations who aren’t prepared to regularly check they have a sober assessment of circumstances risk “slipping into denial”.

The role ingenuity plays in building resilience is essential. The ability to ‘make do’ with whatever is at hand, improvising solutions and trying novel ‘work arounds’ for ‘quick wins’ is the practical skill of resilience. This encourages people to take immediate action, the impact of which avoids a sense of powerlessness.

Effective leaders recognise the importance and symbolism of values-based language and behaviour as well. They use story-telling that illustrates values and shared beliefs as a way of allowing others to construct meaning in tough times, so they have a reason to endure and persist.

Our ELEVEN cohorts experience the impact of storytelling firsthand. Sharing their stories encourages connection and community, which can be an antidote to the isolation a leader can at times endure.

We describe the attribute of resilience as the ability to inspire strength in self and others, especially when it feels hard to do and connecting with others. Fostering agile thinking, while staying true to your purpose and values, is the foundation for long-term resilience.

Resilience is one of the attributes explored in ELEVEN’s world-class Executive Leadership and Future Leaders programs.

If this blog post has intrigued you about how you can be become a more resilient leader and empower your people to do the same, contact us here.