We now live in what has been described as a VUCA world- volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous. Uncertainties abound: Brexit, US protectionism, food shortages, water scarcity, war and terrorism. We need our leaders to be more resilient than ever. According to the American Psychological Association, ‘’resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress- such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors’’.

In Change Lessons from the CEO (Coetsee and Flood, 2013) we explored the roots of resilience with 27 CEOs in Ireland and the UK, using a semi structured life story approach. This is a proven methodology whereby CEOS reflect on their business and personal lives to enable them to gain understanding and insight into their own drives, motives and aspirations. It was clear from those interviews that those who encounter the most difficulties along the way also develop higher levels of resilience. Difficulties challenge us and strengthen us. I have met and interviewed CEOS with dysfunctional childhoods, victims of bomb blasts, and, battle hardened veterans. All of them pointed to the pivotal learning from these difficulties and how they learned both the capacity to reflect and to empathise with those in distress.

These CEOs have learned the three Cs of psychological hardiness: Challenge- where they re-frame threats as opportunities; Control – where they have learned from past experience that they can positively influence difficult situations and Commitment to action where they act based on a strong sense of personal purpose. Leaders nowadays need to be emotionally intelligent as well as resilient. They need to be able to discern between people and situations quickly in making judgement. Many CEOs have to quickly integrate their rational assessment of the situation with their instinctive, intuitive understanding and the pace of change is quickening. What should CEOs and executives do?
1. Build a resilient top team: a team which consists of those who have persevered and conquered difficulties will do so in the future.
2. Build supportive relationships: good relationships with colleagues and team members protects executives from burnout and reduced mental health. Learn to ask for and accept help.
3. Build networks of influence across the organisation so that information flows from customer facing employees to those who must decide on how to react to changing circumstances.
4. Listen to the voice of the customer: customers reside in the crucible of market volatility. Partnering with customers will yield innovations, products and services that are customer ready.
5. Strengthen resilience: pursue new activities that challenge and ensure you have time to reflect at the end of each day on your business and personal life. CEOs are six times more likely to maintain a reflective diary according to Professor Jack Mc McCarthy of Boston University. As Socrates said, we need to examine and understand our lives.
Professor Patrick Flood, Co-Director, Leadership and Talent Institute, Dublin City University
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