The Power of Resilient Leadership

The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic. – Peter Drucker

Some of today’s seasoned executives have managed through difficult times. Change, it would seem, has never been more dynamic or present. Engagement scores are dismally disappointing. Organizations are struggling to create cultures where leaders can thrive and change can be mastered. As we partner with HR leaders inside organizations, we see how resiliency has become an important leadership skill to develop. Do your leaders have the resiliency necessary to weather the unpredictable, changing landscape we face today and lead your company to higher ground?

What does it mean to be resilient? Think of bridges and office buildings that have gaps built in to the architecture so they sway in a strong wind. Think of the interplay between rigid cell walls and pliable centers that allow a stem to fully bend in flood waters and fully spring back upright the next day after the waters recede. Resilience is a balance of heavy duty architecture and pliability.

Resiliency is a key part of one’s leadership skills management. This important skill can be developed and leaders who exhibit resiliency help prepare your organization respond to a rapidly changing and unpredictable business environment.

Through our work with top executives, Clearwater Consulting has identified five key qualities of resilient leaders.

1. Comfortable with unresolved ambiguities as they navigate change

When presenting their plan for transition, resilient leaders are open about the fact that not everything has worked out as intended and then they discuss changes to the plan. Leaders who do not communicate the strategic plan during difficult times, leaves their team and employees wondering what is going on and how the company is going to get through it. Leaders need to accept that changes are necessary, be open to new ideas and then be able to pivot in another direction if something doesn’t work as planned.

2. Inspire and lead through good and bad times

While Emotional intelligence is considered valuable, top producers are often given some leeway in an organization to behave badly. However, star power is less effective in a stressful down cycle when a leader also needs better relationships and a greater ability to inspire his or her team to move through it.

Resilient leaders demonstrate flexibility, durability, an attitude of optimism and a mindset that is open to learning, according to the Center for Creative Leadership. Cynicism, defensiveness, or burnout signal a lack of resilience.

When organizations tolerate derailing behavior in their executives until it becomes intolerable, they risk losing key talent and a major institutional investment over issues that are readily resolved with early recognition and intervention. For example, a high potential executive at an international food and beverage manufacturer had abrasive and ambitious style issues that were impacting his career. We coached him to better understand how his leadership style impacted others while also developing an action plan of acknowledgment, repair and accountability over the course of a year. With a focus on results through immediate action, this high achiever soon became comfortable with taking responsibility for his behaviors when he noticed his peers, subordinates, boss and HR stakeholders were perceiving him differently and reacting better to him. As a result, he was promoted to VP in a key marketing position and continued to produce top line business results for the company. Recent studies repeatedly bear out the value of emotional and relational skills to bottom line performance.

3. Understand diverse leadership styles

A new style of leadership is needed today. It is not as edgy. It utilizes highly developed influencing and collaborating skills. Effective, resilient leaders today understand that there are varying, yet equally, effective leadership styles and often they complement one another to create a productive synergy where 1 + 1 is more than 2.


During a recent engagement at a large energy company, a new team leader needed to quickly learn how to lead and collaborate with a group comprised of silo’d individuals & mindsets. We focused with them on the fundamentals of a team assessment: who am I, who are you, and who can we be as a team, overtly recognizing the diverse styles and approaches to work and communication in the group. The results? Immediate and positive feedback was received from the team to the team leader. Coordination of projects became immediately smoother and results returned faster.

High functioning teams are motivated by a clear purpose and clear communications. The Clearwater Consulting process for teams begins with helping team members make that mental shift from “me” to “we”. Without that perspective, commitment to shared purpose and goals is fraught with challenges. Essential to moving forward is clearly defining purpose with a two-pronged strategy based on corporate mandate and appreciative inquiry which asks – what does the team do effectively and how can we build on that? Once teams have clearly identified their purpose, then goals are established, accountabilities defined and the team is on track to achieve results. Results reinforce, motivate and build resiliency.

4. Communicate transparently

One challenge we faced at a technology company was to help the culture become adept at giving and receiving feedback. Their brand new CEO felt leaders exchanging ideas and challenging one another would stimulate better solutions faster for adapting to the changing realities of the market. A combination of assessments, listening to top managers’ requests, cross-team courses and discussions as well as individual and group coaching helped them retain top talent and begin the realignment of their business with the market even in the face of unparalleled economic stress. By being as transparent as possible with both employees and stockholders, the CEO was able to gain trust, retain top talent and has seen a remarkable rise in share prices.

Over time, we have discovered that assessing and addressing current challenges in the individual, teams and the culture allows team members to develop more openness to change, and focus on building skills and resiliency to respond to the next challenge that arises.

If you don’t tell people what is going on, they will make it up, often imagining the worst, says Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School and director of its Center for Human Resources. But remember that communicating the change is different from selling it, and top performers prefer to make up their own minds, says Pat Zigarmi, vice president of business development for the Ken Blanchard Companies in Escondido, Calif. You want to give them enough data about the organization as it is and as it needs to be so that they can come to the same conclusions you have. You must make a compelling business case for the change. 

5. Anticipate the next wave of change

Research shows that executives close their minds to new ideas when they are under stress. They tend to reach for the same levers they have pulled in the past, even if those levers don’t work in the new conditions. – Harvard Business Review

Excellent leadership is sometimes counterintuitive – where management may be inclined to hunker down in a crisis and become less communicative thinking to leave themselves more flexibility, the resilient leader devises a courageous plan of action balanced between current realities and a vision of the future, and communicates that plan realistically. There is no question that in turbulent times, effective executives are key for the company to survive and thrive.

The natural tendency is to become myopic and withdraw the organization to perceived safety —a posture that stifles the very things that cause the organization to thrive. The savvy executive champions future success, connects people to the future and engenders confidence that the organization is in capable hands and that the best decisions are being made. While leaders can never provide a message of unequivocal safety, in times of great uncertainty they must reassure staff, customers and suppliers or risk losing precious, hard-fought-for ground.

The ability to bounce back from adversity—and to navigate during hard times—is not innate. It has a lot to do with how you think about the challenges you face, and it is a set of skills that can be developed, say Mary Lynn Pulley and Michael Wakefield, authors of Building Resiliency: How to Thrive in Times of Change.

Resilient leaders accept change as constant and inevitable, become comfortable with change and are open to learning, they say. This doesn’t necessarily mean going back to school or retraining. But it is about trying new approaches, being open to new skills, and adapting their behavior. Many managers resist learning new ways, even when it’s obvious that the old ways don’t work anymore, say Pulley and Wakefield. Resilient leaders are constantly improving.