Fostering Leadership Resilience

“More than education, more than experience, more than training  a persons  resilience will determine who succeeds or fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, true at the Olympics and true in the Boardroom”    Dean M Becker

To be resilient is being able to bounce back from adversity . According to the American Psychological Association a resilient person bends but will not break when confronted with adversity enabling them to bounce back quickly.

Specifically it is the ability to modulate and constructively harness the stress response a capacity essential or both physical and mental health

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Unchecked high levels of stress undermine the immune system  and can dramatically increase the risks of a host of ailments from stomach ulcers, asthma, depression, diabetes and heart disease. Not only that prolonged stress impacts negatively on our decision making and judgement and perception of events.  This can cause our own negative thinking to increase our feelings of pressure and anxiety which builds our feelings of being stressed even further.

Read more on Leadership Resilience here.

So let’s talk a little about the natural stress response

When you encounter a perceived threat such as when a ferocious looking dog barks at you during your morning walk, for instance startling you — your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.

The body's stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.

The trouble is  when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight response remains turned on.

A lot of popular writing on stress seems to imply that stress is bad and should be avoided. That is not what being resilient is all about. To foster resilience you have to be able to bounce back from stressful situations.

Some pressure is actually good and without any pressure or stressors we would weaken  and not develop or grow as well as we might. Some pressurised situations  present difficulty for us to overcome and mastered which can facilitate growth in self-esteem, and resilience. A resilient person is not someone who avoids stress but learns  how to adapt to it constructively.

The first need  here is to recognize the difference between pressure and stress. Often people talk  about these things as if they are the same thing, but they’re not.  Pressure is the external demand in the environment. Everyone has pressure in their work and life: deadlines, projects, family demands.

That is not stress. Stress is what people do with that pressure in their minds. According to Dr Derek Roger’s  from the university of York and Canterbury his 30 years of research pinpointed one factor above all others as being the key driver of a person’s stress — rumination.

Rumination is the mental process of thinking over and over about something, which happened either in the past or could happen in the future, and attaching negative emotion to it.

Ruminations about the future are associated with “what if this happens’”or “what if that happens”. Ruminations about the past replay, over and over, some awful experience you had and usually end with, “if only I had ...” or “I should have done …”.

People who ruminate a lot have chronically elevated levels of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, meaning they are constantly over-activated and on edge. Non-ruminators may have plenty of pressure in their lives, but they aren’t stressed by it.

The good news is that once you understand stress is something you create, then you also start to see it is not inevitable. You can learn to work in extremely high pressure situations and not feel stressed and be more resilient.

Studies of identical twins suggest that some personal characteristics that foster resilience may be inherited . These personality traits include taking on novel tasks and interacting with unfamiliar people as well as being good natured and sociable and able to accept your own faults.

Environmental factors include family support and stability, quality of schools  and safety of neighbourhood. An unemployed person with few friends and family might have a more difficult time being resilient than a financially secure individual with a supportive  network of family and friends. 

How resilient we are may be due to a combination of our genes and our upbringing but we now know for certain that people can learn to boost their resilience.  We can learn to develop mental and and physical habits that foster positive adaptation to stress. Potentially stressful events are a fact of life. And you may not be able to change your current situation. But you can take steps to manage the impact these events have on you.