Resilience: What Is It and Why is it Crucial for Female Leaders?

The research conducted by LeanIn.org, McKinsey and Company, Huffington Post, Harvard Business Review, Athena Centre for Leadership Studies and the AMA Women’s Leadership Center, among others, all agree that resilience is a vital tool, particularly for women, for driving and sustaining our successes in leadership.

The reasons resilience is viewed as crucial for women are fairly obvious – the pace and intensity of our working lives, societal pressures and gender bias, the extra responsibilities of our home lives including the emotional burden of household and family management that many women tend to also carry.

Recent studies by the American Psychological Association and by Grant Thornton both identified that there is a widening gender stress gap between men and women – over the past eight years the stress levels women are reporting have increased in relation to men's reported stress. Grant Thornton points to the number of converging factors that place unique stressors on women as they emerge as leaders, things such as:

  • The more significant career trade-offs women make as they enter parenthood.

  • Facing gender bias as a barrier to leadership advancement.

  • The subtle biases driven by societal norms that work against women when it comes to the subjective leadership qualities (style, tone of voice).

Add to all that the intensifying business and global factors and external risks all leaders face.

Resilience Defined

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “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, workplace, and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences".

We see resilience as:

  • The ability to hold to your self, your core, and to stay grounded there when under pressure and the ability to quickly return to your core when facing adversity.

  • Having a spirit of generosity and compassion – towards yourself and towards others.

  • The ability to be flexible, reframe, quickly shift gears and transform adversity and use this to your advantage.

  • The nurturance of strong connections.

  • The ability to experience flow in your life and work.

How to Deepen Your Well of Resilience

Given that many women are already running on empty, how do we return to and sustain our energy so we rebound from adversity and thrive under pressure and feel we are operating from our best?

Knowing Who You Are at Your Core:

At the heart of becoming a more resilient leader is your development in being your own person. This means:

  • Knowing what it is to be true to yourself and your values.

  • Having the ability to integrate thinking and feeling responses – particularly in challenging situations. Do you know what drives your thoughts and are you able to step outside your ladder of inference and entertain other possibilities? Do you understand the impact your emotional responses have on how you act?

  • Being differentiated – your ability to integrate, in a healthy fashion, the basic human needs for togetherness and individuality.

Having a Strong Sense of Purpose:

Your sense of purpose is what motivates you and gives you the fuel to push on especially when facing challenges.

What is your purpose? It is your connection to deeply held values and also to something beyond your self-interest, something greater than yourself.

  • What do you care deeply about in the work that you do?

  • What feeds your soul?

  • What has you hold to your values and principles even in the face of resistance or influence?

Having Compassion and an Attitude of Generosity:

This begins with you. You must be able to demonstrate compassion for yourself to be able to demonstrate compassion for those you lead.

How much compassion do you give yourself for your foibles and weaknesses?

  • If you fail at something, do you self-flagellate or do you externalize the factors and look to the learning and opportunities?

  • Which voice is stronger – your inner critic voice or your inner sage?

And what about your self-care and regenerative practices?

  • What are your habits and practices for managing your energy through quality nourishment and sleep, self-reflection and joyful renewal activities?

  • What do you give yourself to promote your well-being and provide you with the fuel for focus and endurance?

Outwardly, compassion is the intent to contribute to the happiness and well-being of others, whereas, empathy is the tendency to feel others' emotions and take them on as if you were feeling them. It's not about being nice or feeling someone's pain, it is about actively nurturing others to their full potential.

In action, this looks like supporting people's growth, providing stability and psychological safety, working to clear obstacles and enable team members in their work.

Compassion builds morale and trust and when paired with a generosity of spirit (recognizing people are human and make mistakes and supporting their growth through those mistakes) people can be more honest, creative, productive and empowered.

There is a personal payoff to being outwardly compassionate: the activation of your neurological centre for compassion (right supramarginal gyrus & midbrain PAG) has now been linked to better health, happiness and longevity.

Managing your Thought Processes, Emotions and Your Presence:

Essentially, we are referring to Emotional Intelligence, which is your ability to recognize and manage your anxiety, your reactivity and how personally you take things, while also having the awareness of the impact your presence is having on another.

  • How able are you to catch yourself in self-defeating thought patterns and reframe situations as opportunities for growth?

  • How effective are you in accepting the facts of adversity while feeling capable of being in action towards finding solutions?

  • Are you able to adjust your communication, seek clarity and foster mutual understanding?

  • Can you see things from another's perspective without layering on your own judgments?

  • Are you flexible in your thinking, open to new ideas, or do you respond from rigid thinking?

  • How aware are you of what might be limiting beliefs?

People who are resilient tend to be open and flexible thinkers who are aware of their own biases and triggers for reactivity and can pause, acknowledge their experience and the experience of others, and adjust and reframe.

Cultivating Connection:

Several of the above listed researchers have noted that, in general, women are not as good as men at cultivating their network and developing and nurturing diverse connections. Women who do are more likely to thrive in their leadership development and advancement, and they are more resilient.

Resilience is deepened, in particular, when women work to maintain balance in relationships – listening, seeking to understand, ensuring clarity and seeking out positive connections.

How positive and diverse are your relationships?

  • Do you actively develop connections with positive and growth minded people who energize you?

  • Do you actively identify and nurture supportive work relationships that provide you with support, mentorship, advocacy and opportunity?

  • Do you step outside your comfort zone and activity seek our connections that are diverse?

We see a further role in how connection supports your resilience – self-connection: taking quality time to recharge and reconnect to what is most vital – your essential self.

  • What practices do you have that allow you to deepen your connection to your essential self?

Experiencing Flow:

Flow is the phenomenon of feeling deep satisfaction derived from being wholly engaged in an activity that is both challenging and fulfilling. Flow is goal directed and involves intense focus on a task supported by a sense of progress.

Managing your energy throughout the day with bursts of flow interspersed with the other restful or more mindless or less engaging tasks is what boosts your resilience.

  • Being in flow is energy regenerating, but if you engage in too much flow the energy can flow right out of you.

  • Engaging in the mundane or urgent tasks can be draining if you do not have a sense of purpose or progress, but if these tasks are interspersed with periods of intense flow and are engaged in mindfully, they can provide the necessary recovery time from the intensity of flow.

The trick is to give yourself the space to immerse yourself in flow and to be mindful of the experience, but to also give yourself the brain breaks you need to recover. It is sort of like high-performance athletic training. We grow through intervals of intense energy expenditure followed with recovery time.

We explore this and more in our Revitalize Retreats. Revitalize is our unique leadership development retreat blending body-mind-spirit practices with empowering dialogues where participants:

  • Learn the dynamic model of resilience-building and regenerative leadership

  • Learn how to identify and break through limiting beliefs

  • Explore tools and strategies to help them deepen their wells of resilience

  • Design their own Personal Resilience Plan.

Further Reading:

The American Psychological Association has a good article exploring resilience factors and strategies: The Road to Resilience

Delaney Tosh