Charles Knippen is the president of The National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS).

To be resilient is to be tough — to bounce back and recover quickly from any adversity you encounter. Resilient people overcome even the toughest life events to accomplish what they set out to do. As leaders, they guide their followers through trials and deliver them to success.

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa for nearly three decades for anti-apartheid activism before he became the country’s first democratically elected leader. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. overcame violence from the public, media and the FBI to lead the civil rights movement. Oprah Winfrey led her small production team through an industry landscape with no room for black women and created a multimedia empire spanning books, magazines and even her own network.

Why resilient leadership matters.

While your situation may not be as extreme as the ones I mentioned, all successful leaders share a common story — they personally rose in a time of adversity and led their followers through it. We’re facing an unprecedented level of adversity now. Major paradigm shifts are occurring in every sector of our world. Many of these challenges, such as climate change, economic instability and misinformation, present global emergencies.

We need people who can see us through these times, focus unwaveringly on the larger picture and rally groups around worthy goals all while maintaining calm in the face of unrelenting turbulence. These leaders are already among us. They just need support, training and refinement to tap into their full potential. And resilience is something they can build before they ever step into a leadership position.

How To Build Resilience

While resilience is forged in conflict, it’s also possible for individuals to hone these traits within themselves right now. Here are five ways I’ve found you can do this.

1. Learn to face reality.

No situation is ever as good or as idyllic as we’d like it to be. But when a crisis rears its head, our limits become more apparent. Learn to accept things as they are so you can be more clear about problems and possible solutions. Psychology Today reports that this kind of accepting outlook helps release stress rather than generate it so that you have more mental and emotional energy available to lead effectively.

2. Know your purpose.

Remembering why you’re here can be all it takes to ease the burden of doing something you don’t want to do. Everyone has a purpose that drives them, even if it’s not big and exciting — or perhaps they’re not even aware of it. Purpose can be as simple as being the best version of yourself every day to as complex as raising a happy family or solving a major social issue. Know your purpose in its simplest terms so you can draw upon it for motivation or inspiration when the going gets tough.

3. Become comfortable with flexibility.

Since the United States government declared Covid-19 a national emergency, the way businesses and individuals operated changed in ways that are still with us today. It was a scary time, but many leaders thrived and used the moment to pivot and experiment. Famously, many distillery owners switched from producing liquor to much-needed sanitizer to keep frontline workers safe. Automakers like GM and Ford pivoted to producing ventilator machines in their idled facilities.

When you view challenges or disruptions as opportunities rather than burdens, you can more consistently realize your personal potential as well as your capacity to make positive change. Every time things change, there’s a chance to make them better.

4. Practice self-care.

When a plane is crash landing, passengers are instructed to secure their own oxygen masks before helping anyone else. No one can help others if they’re incapacitated or compromised. Leadership is the same way. Knowing your limits and taking care of yourself prevent you from making rash decisions or burning out.

Self-care comes in many forms. It could be organizational, such as setting boundaries and delegating more tasks to protect your time; emotional, such as engaging with your support system or therapist; or physical, which includes exercising, yoga and massage. Even something as basic as sleep helps maintain the fortitude that leaders need in their day-to-day work. The CDC actually found a correlation between insufficient sleep and unemployment. Do what it takes to recharge so you can finish the leadership marathon.

5. Process failures and celebrate accomplishments.

At its core, being a resilient leader is about being present in the moment so you can respond most effectively. Being in touch with who you are, what you’ve done and how you feel gives you the data to make the best decisions.

Periodically review your past decisions and where they’ve taken you so you can learn from your failures and process your negative emotions about them. It’s also important to take stock of any wins and express gratitude for them. This practice builds momentum for your future success and tends to give energy to whatever it is you focus on. Don’t just do this randomly — actually schedule time for this kind of processing so you can stay in sync with both yourself and the challenges you’re facing.

Building resilience is essential to navigating difficult situations. Things like stress and fear can lead to poor decision-making, avoidance and burnout — behaviors good leaders can’t indulge in. Bad moods can sour relationships with subordinates, undermining leaders’ effectiveness. Building resilience protects you from these consequences.


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