By Stuart Taylor FIML
It’s been a year since our worlds were turned upside down by the pandemic, and it’s been a challenging year for all of us, not least of all for business leaders. Across virtually every sector and industry, leaders have been forced to deal with the unprecedented and adapt rapidly to steer their organisations through a volatile economic and social climate. They’ve been expected to do more with less resources – whilst having to remain innovative, agile, and profitable. The circumstances have well and truly given new meaning to the word resilience, and showed leaders how difficult, if not impossible, it is to lead without it.
Resilience is defined as the ability to deal with and thrive during unexpected challenges and difficult situations. In the context of business, resilience helps leaders sustain high performance under pressure, maintain an optimistic outlook during periods of turbulence, navigate change with agility, and bounce forward from setbacks. In other words, resilience enables leaders to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and lead their teams towards a stronger future.
More than that, leaders who invest in their own personal resilience are more likely to be able to master stress and prevent the onset of mental health problems. Leadership requires a tremendous amount of responsibility and whilst stress is a normal response to high-pressure roles, excessive and sustained periods of stress eventually result in professional and personal decline – a lack of engagement and motivation at work, decreased productivity, poor judgement, difficulty sleeping, weight gain, burnout, and in some cases, mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
During the pandemic, Springfox’s research found worry and anxiety was reported as the prevailing emotion felt by 21.7% of Australian professionals. This was exacerbated for leaders who often feel they carry the failures and successes of the organisation on their shoulders. In fact, a separate study by Apollo Life found that CEOs are far more stressed than the teams they lead, with an alarming 100% of CEOs polled reporting suffering from excessive stress daily. Unsurprisingly, levels of CEO burnout are almost double the national average.
It’s for this reason that personal resilience is a critical characteristic of any high-performing leader, and in fact, it’s resilient leaders who pave the way for resilient, successful organisations. Resilient businesses are those that are sustainable and agile through the years, and are powered by productive, mentally healthy people who can successfully navigate change and thrive in periods of high intensity.
Building organisational resilience starts at the top, and a leader who models resilience in their own life paves the way for others in the organisation to follow suit. But whilst we all have a degree of innate resilience, true resilience isn’t simply a well to draw from when times are tough. Instead, it’s a learned competence that must be purposefully built and skilfully maintained through a number of positive lifestyle practices and psychological disciplines.
Maintain strong lifestyle practices
Resilient people nurture their mental and physical health through adequate sleep, proper nutrition and daily exercise. Regular exercise and a healthy, nourishing diet have a significant impact on the overall function of your body, so it’s important to make this a priority. Even just 5 minutes a day of high intensity exercise is associated with better brain function and overall health. Sleep is also one of the most critical resilience-building factors – try to aim for around 7-8 hours a night, and ensure you avoid digital devices and blue light in the hour before you sleep, as this can impair the quality and duration of your rest.
Make time for daily relaxation
While it might seem insignificant or perhaps even self-indulgent, daily relaxation is crucial for building resilience. Just a few minutes a day to relax and unwind can clear your mind and help manage stress. This might involve simply taking a walk, reading a book, or switching off your devices an hour before sleeping. Our Global Resilience Report found that daily relaxation practices improve sleep by 25%, so by making time for mindful rest, you’ll lay the foundations for a better night’s sleep, too.
Adopt an attitude of gratitude
Oprah Winfrey once said that the first thing she does every morning is say ‘thank you’ – the media mogul credits gratitude as her key to success. Practising daily gratitude increases happiness and satisfaction, reduces stress, and neutralises cynicism – a key characteristic of burnout. But like any habit, cultivating an attitude of gratitude takes practice. Try taking a leaf from the book of Ariana Huffington, who writes down three things she’s grateful for each day, big or small.
Stop and take deep breaths
Controlled breathing can help improve your cognitive performance, effectively manage stress and help you become more resilient by improving concentration, increasing creativity and improving productivity to help you power through. Diaphragmatic breathing will help enhance your cardiorespiratory fitness, lessen tension in the neck and shoulders, aid digestion and lymphatic drainage, as well as calm your mind and body. Place one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest, and take note of which hand rises and falls when you breathe. If it’s the hand on your stomach, you’re using your diaphragm to breathe.
Stay connected and compassionate
Maintaining positive interpersonal relationships is critical for building resilience. Having someone to talk to or spend time with is an effective way to get your mind off work and can provide a necessary dose of comfort, security, and perspective during tough times. Add to this, workplace stress can easily lead to irritability and create unhappiness in your personal life, subsequently affecting your relationships. Counteract this by making an effort to be fully present where there’s an opportunity to spend time with loved ones.
Build calm and equanimity
Last but certainly not least, the hallmark of a resilient leader is their ability to maintain composure when crisis is unfolding around them. This, in part, is nurtured by staying in the present and being disciplined in breathing and mindfulness. Moreover, it’s about creating a sense of confidence and presence, or as Buddhists call it, equanimity. This is a deep belief that “I am ok” and the challenges in front of me are largely surmountable. This belief is built up over time with success affirming success.
It’s said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and this rings true for organisations and the people who comprise them. In order for organisations to rebuild resilience following periods of change and upheaval, resilience across all levels, especially leadership, is critical. Take the time to prioritise building your personal and professional resilience today and watch your business reap the benefits.
Stuart Taylor is the CEO of Springfox and a Fellow of IML ANZ.