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The Future of Great Leadership Lies in Resilience: Part II

Part II of a three-part series

  • 13 November 2020

True leaders stand out in a crisis. And for sure, the corona pandemic is a crisis like no other – and one that’s severely testing leaders. How leaders react to the repercussions, how quickly they recover and the lessons they choose to learn will determine whether legacies are built or lost in the coming months.

So, precisely which competencies will the next generation of leaders need to steer their organization through future storms of similar providence, length and severity? At Egon Zehnder we believe that great leaders need to harness and build up resilience. To assess the future of leadership and the respective role of resilience, Egon Zehnder surveyed a number of leading chief human resources officers (CHROs)*, asking them which characteristics they consider will be important for leaders to succeed in the next normal. CHROs are accurate seismographs for leadership throughout the corporate world and we examine their answers in the following series of articles.

Resilient leaders bounce forward, not back

As the world of work undergoes transformation as a result of the corona crisis, precisely which characteristics do leaders need to be successful in future? We asked CHROs, “Imagine the world of the next normal – how important do you think the following leadership characteristics will be?” They responded by ranking the following in order of importance:

  1. Ability to deal with ambiguity

  2. Ability to cope under pressure

  3. Communication skills

  4. Decision making ability

  5. Emotional intelligence

  6. Future orientation

  7. Analytical skills

In actual fact, this entire list could be encapsulated in just one word: resilience. All of the above characteristics correspond with Egon Zehnder’s definition of resilience. Resilience is commonly defined as the ability to bounce back from adversity. We at Egon Zehnder believe that it’s more than that. We see resilience as the ability to subsequently “bounce forward”, namely, to not just rapidly recover from and adapt to a crisis but to thrive amid adversity and utilize disruption to accelerate transformation for the better. Essentially, the best leaders consciously learn from adversity and seize it as an opportunity for change.

By learning to master transitions, as we have explored in the first article of this series, executives can learn to lead with resilience – coping under pressure during endings; dealing with uncertainty throughout the zone of ambiguity, while learning how to address new beginnings. Moreover, resilience is essential for sustainable executive performance – and it’s vital if leaders want to complete this continuing corona crisis. The good news is that resilience is not a fixed trait but can be learned. For example, Egon Zehnder can assess resilience levels and train leaders, using methods such as remote coaching sessions or workshops.

Mentally and emotionally strong

At Egon Zehnder, we believe that leadership is a dual journey: leaders have to grow in order to help others grow. In the same way, building resilience in others is grounded in a leader’s own resilience – the best leaders root their capacity to galvanize and build high-performing teams and organizations in their own individual resilience.

Effective leaders help team members foster their resilience by communicating with CARE – compassion, assessment, realignment, and execution.

  • Communicating compassion is about social support – by acknowledging team members’ fears and concerns and responding with genuine empathy, leaders create an environment of psychological safety.

  • Communicating assessment is about providing perspective – leaders need to assimilate diverse viewpoints, make an informed assessment and clearly communicate this to their team.

  • Realignment concerns purpose and meaning – effective leaders understand the “why” of a company, connect the company’s values to actions, and align team members behind them.

  • Finally, execution is about identifying and leveraging employees’ strong points and ensuring that they play to their strengths, particularly in times of crisis.

With this in mind let’s now examine Egon Zehnder’s five building blocks of individual resilience. We call them “the five habits of resilient leaders”, as they describe behaviors and thinking patterns of highly resilient individuals:

  • Self-care – knowing what is good for you and doing it. This is ranked highest because of the risk of emotional contagion; not taking sufficient care of yourself can have an overspill effect on your team. In an emergency, a leader needs to figuratively first put on his or her oxygen mask before helping others.

  • Social support – knowing who is good for you, then bonding and spending time with them.

  • Perspective – looking behind the obvious to see what else could be true. Focusing on the positive – what’s good, what’s working and looking ahead with optimism.

  • Purpose and meaning – understanding the “why” behind your actions and feeling that your work adds value.

  • Strength orientation – knowing what you’re good at and doing this as often as possible.

Note how the habits of resilient individuals mirror effective leadership communication. Also, how leaders need to root their behaviors towards their teams in their own resilience.

Look after yourself first, then others second

Right now, leaders are being called upon to provide orientation and comfort in extraordinarily challenging times. By growing individual resilience executives can build a foundation to lead effectively during complexity. And by showing authentic vulnerability, leaders can build up trust with team members. However, they need to maintain their stature as a capable captain, creating a feeling of safety for those under their guidance, while providing hope of better times ahead.

And how are they doing? Leaders seem to recognize the meaning behind their work but not what’s good for them. When we asked survey participants which dimensions of resilient behavior they had exhibited during the last 14 days, purpose and meaning was the most prevalent, followed by perspective. Worryingly, self-care was the weakest. Yet taking care of yourself is vital during times of stress – if leaders don’t take care of themselves, they won’t be strong enough to take care of others. Leaders need to look after themselves to build up the necessary resilience to then look after their team, particularly in challenging times such as these.

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