In today’s unpredictable landscape, leaders face new challenges, difficult decisions, and changing circumstances. To successfully navigate through times of uncertainty and lead your team to success, you need to be adaptable, proactive, and, perhaps most importantly, resilient.

Why Is Resilience Important?

Building resilience is vital to becoming a leader who can successfully navigate through challenges and guide others with courage and conviction. In a recent study by Zenger Folkman, it was found that leaders with high levels of resilience are viewed as being more effective by their managers, peers, and direct reports. Research shows that firms imbued with resilience don’t just survive, but they thrive in the face of change and uncertainty.

Resilience is the capacity to not only endure great challenges, but get stronger in the midst of them,” says Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn, who teaches a free, online leadership lesson about legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton. “This is such an extraordinarily important capability because we live in a world that’s one nonstop crisis—one calamity, one emergency, one unexpected, often difficult surprise—after another, like waves breaking on the shore.”

Leadership in Times of Crisis: Responding to COVID-19

No business is immune to unpredictable threats or crisis situations. Most recently, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought about unprecedented changes to the way the world operates, impacting nearly every business in some capacity.

In an effort to reduce the spread of infection, social distancing measures have gone into effect, forcing many companies to rethink how their employees work. For essential businesses, this has included requiring face masks and other safety precautions in the workplace. For many others, it’s meant undergoing drastic organizational change and learning how to manage remote teams. Businesses unable to adapt have been forced to close their doors.

To withstand turbulent times, such as the current global health crisis, organizations need resilient leaders who can keep calm under pressure and grow in the face of adversity.

Related: Resource Roundup: Tips & Lessons to Help You Navigate Through the Coronavirus Crisis

If you’re seeking to enhance your leadership capabilities and turn challenges into opportunities for positive change, here are four ways to become more resilient and advance your career.

4 Ways to Build Leadership Resilience

1. Reflect and Assess


Leaders need to have a strong understanding of themselves to successfully guide others through times of change and uncertainty.

Through self-reflection and feedback from trusted peers, leaders can identify their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their motivational drivers, and approach challenges with a keen sense of emotional intelligence.

Research shows a high level of emotional intelligence is not only the strongest predictor of workplace performance, but a trait shared by 90 percent of high-functioning employees.

By making it a habit to regularly assess your leadership effectiveness, you can adapt your leadership style to tackle complex business problems and steer your team through turbulent situations.

Related: Emotional Intelligence Skills: What They Are & How to Develop Them

2. Strive to Continuously Learn and Grow


Among the number of traits that characterize effective leadership, Koehn says resilience is one that can be honed and strengthened.

“Resilience is not an endowed gift,” she says. “It’s not a DNA deposit that was made when we were born. There’s no resilience app. It’s a learned capability and it’s very much like a muscle in that we make it stronger by using it.”

According to Koehn, organizational challenges present opportunities for leaders to learn more about themselves and bolster their resolve to overcome hardship. Approaching challenges with a positive outlook allows leaders to bounce back from adversity and come out stronger on the other side.

“Each time we navigate through a crisis and find a little strength in it, we can pick out an insight we can learn from and resolve not to get bitter, weaker, smaller, or more frightened, but, rather, to get the tiniest bit braver,” she says.

On top of first-hand experience, leadership training can be an effective way to prepare for real-world business obstacles. In a free, online lesson, Koehn explores the leadership methods used by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton when he and his 27-man crew were trapped in pack ice during an expedition to the South Pole. In the process of unpacking Shackleton's story, learners are provided with actionable takeaways that can be applied to their own careers.

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3. Be Purpose-Driven


Purpose is vitally important to work performance. According to a report by BetterUp Labs (pdf), performing meaningful work in support of a purpose leads to a host of benefits, including:

  • Higher job satisfaction
  • Stronger social support in the workplace
  • Greater organizational commitment among employees

By taking a purpose-driven approach to work and instilling a sense of meaning among your team, you can lead more authentically and rally your employees around a mission when challenges arise, empowering them to unleash their potential and perform at their best in the pursuit of organizational success.

4. Cultivate Relationships


When facing seemingly insurmountable crises, trusted friends and colleagues can be a source from which leaders can draw strength and guidance.

A robust professional network can provide access to people with different perspectives and skills, along with resources that can be leveraged to build high-performing teams and drive key projects forward.

Through growing your network and learning from peers with diverse backgrounds and talents, you can become a more capable leader and develop the confidence needed to overcome obstacles and influence others to do the same.

Access Your Free Leadership Lesson | HBS Online

Becoming a More Resilient Leader

Becoming a more resilient leader is a pursuit that’s worthy of any professional’s long-term development plan. By looking inward, making a commitment to learning, following a purpose, and cultivating relationships, you can improve how you respond to challenges and, as Koehn puts it, strengthen your resilience muscle.

“We build the cells—the fibers of the muscle—so when we face the next wave of difficulties that break on the beach, we’re better able to access our stronger selves and navigate through crisis,” Koehn says. “At the same time, we find a way within ourselves and with our people to make lemonade out of the lemons.”

Do you want to improve your leadership capabilities? Download our e-book on how to become a more effective leader or take our free, 35-minute leadership lesson about legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton, and discover how you can develop the skills to lead with courage and conviction.

(This post was updated on June 18, 2020. It was originally published on December 17, 2019.)

Matt Gavin

About the Author

Matt Gavin is a member of the marketing team at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to returning to his home state of Massachusetts and joining HBS Online, he lived in North Carolina, where he held roles in news and content marketing. He has a background in video production and previously worked on several documentary films for Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. In his spare time, he enjoys running, exploring New England, and spending time with his family.