Training & Development

Resilient leadership: Advice for navigating through organizational changes

resilient leadership

Resilience is not a one-time action. It is a sustained effort to adapt, survive and thrive in times of stress and uncertainty. In 2020, the novel Coronavirus forced leaders of nations, organizations and companies to make difficult decisions with no precedent to learn from. Developing a resilient leadership style has never been more important as the pandemic has permanently changed the way billions of people work, gather and travel.

Surviving and thriving during times of upheaval and organizational change is possible with the right mindset. No one can predict the future. All you can do is control how you react to what life throws at you. In this article, we’re breaking down what resilient leadership means and outlining strategies that can help develop these skills.

What is resilient leadership?

At its core, resilient leadership is the ability to adapt to new circumstances or limitations. While this sounds straightforward, it takes intention and practice to master. A resilient leader is one who can:

  • Recover from setbacks
  • Stay optimistic and mission oriented
  • Respond instead of simply reacting
  • Make decisions with imperfect or incomplete knowledge

Science tells us that stressful situations can cause the human brain to become overwhelmed. In this frenzied state, we stop being able to take in new information and resort to habits or past experiences. During times of transition or organizational change, leaders often make the mistake of taking the path of least resistance. Alternatively, they might become paralyzed by the fear of failure and choose to not react at all.

In a familiar crisis or challenge, you can draw on your personal experience to inform your decision-making. But what happens when you are confronting an entirely new situation and have no historical benchmarks to guide you? This is where resilient leadership can lead the way.

What are some common traits of a resilient leader?

A 2017 Zenger Folkman study determined that highly resilient leaders are considered to be more effective by their managers, peers and direct reports. Ways to demonstrate your resilience as a leader include:

  • Maintaining consistent and clear communication
  • Remaining coachable, regardless of your position
  • Building positive and trusting relationships
  • Being comfortable saying “I don’t know” if that’s the honest answer
  • Knowing when to take bold risks or try something entirely new
  • Investing in the development of others
  • Being willing to embrace change

What leadership lessons can be learned from the pandemic?

Keeping your business or organization moving forward during a crisis can be daunting even for seasoned professionals. Adam Coughran, president of Safe Kids Inc. and University of Massachusetts Global graduate, recently presented a webinar  “Resilient Leadership: How to Lead Your Organization Through Unprecedented Times”. Coughran has worked as a leadership consultant across many industries and recalls that before the pandemic, the concerns that were top of mind for most companies related to cybersecurity and physical safety in the workplace.

“COVID-19 hit and added another layer of difficulty on top of pre-existing problems,” Coughran explains. “Millions of people started working remotely overnight, and leaders had to figure out how to manage entire organizations virtually.”

In addition to adapting to the challenges of remote work environments, Coughran believes business leaders should also be prioritizing the mental health and well-being of their employees. For many professionals, worlds are colliding with working-at-home spouses and roommates as well as children attending school virtually.

“You have to be empathetic about what people are going through. COVID has changed how people prioritize and compartmentalize their lives,” he shares. “Work stress is now at home – and so is everyone else!”

In his experience as a leader during the pandemic, Coughran has found success in utilizing a situational leadership style to solve the problems at hand. Situational leadership theory indicates that a leader must adapt their management style according to the current environment and needs of the team. This theory originates in the book “Management of Organizational Behavior” by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hershey.

Each leadership style is a function of two categories of behavior:

  • Directive behavior: The extent to which the leader must tell the team member what needs to be done, how to complete the task, why it is necessary and when it needs to be completed
  • Supportive behavior: The extent to which the leader engages with team members by being available for questions and dialogue, actively listening and providing feedback, recognition and reinforcement

    By encouraging leaders to assess situations and team members objectively and frequently, they develop resilient leadership skills and become better at adjusting to change and unforeseen challenges.

    The development level of team members is based on two broad metrics:

  • The ability of the team member to perform the necessary task
  • The commitment or willingness of the team member to do so

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A leader can choose from four situational leadership styles and shift as necessary, adapting to change as circumstances evolve:

  • Directing: This leadership style is appropriate for a team that requires frequent contact, supervision and guidance to perform its tasks. Leaders may make most or all the decisions and then communicate accordingly with the rest of the team.
    • High directive and low supportive behavior
  • Coaching: In this style, leaders are still making decisions around what, how and when tasks are completed but leave space for the team member to learn why their task is important and where it fits in to the goals of the organization.
    • High directive and high supportive behavior
  • Supporting: A supporting leadership style involves less guidance and more coaching. It is useful for when a team is competent but does not feel confident in the members’ abilities or is not motivated to complete the tasks.
    • Low directive and high supportive behavior
  • Delegating: With a delegating leadership style, the leader has high confidence in the ability of the team and trusts them to do their jobs with minimal direct supervision. This is most applicable for a team that is skilled, efficient and effective and does not need much supervision on a day-to-day basis.
    • Low directive and low supportive behavior

Coughran explains how business leaders can apply their resilient leadership skills to build off of these situational leadership styles, adapting as appropriate depending on the circumstances. In the case of the pandemic, he found it helpful to focus on the follow four areas:

  • Discovering: This is the preliminary period of gathering information and assessing the situation at hand. Nobody has answers yet, but everyone is working together to understand the short-term and long-term issues at hand.
  • Coping: This involves finding solutions to the immediate issues the team is facing. Understand that, with all of the competing priorities, everyone is at risk of burnout and uncertain of the future. It’s important in this stage to acknowledge these realities and implement small changes to address concerns when able.
  • Surviving: As individuals have adjusted and are making the best of the new normal, this stage involves establishing longer-term solutions to ensure sustainability and support for all employees moving forward. Gathering input from team members will help allow for resolutions that are received well by all.
  • Directing: The team has now experienced overcoming adversity and is committed to moving forward and upward. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to continue guiding that direction, communicating about important changes and decisions and keeping employees bought in to the overarching organizational goals.

Lead your organization with confidence

If you’re interested in growing professionally and personally, learning the foundations of resilient leadership is a great place to start. There are many ways to hone your skills and become the empowering and effective leader your team needs to successfully navigate organizational change.

If you’re looking for ways to further enhance your leadership skills, learn more about University of Massachusetts Global’s bachelor's, master's and doctoral leadership programs.

Already equipped with a degree but still looking for development opportunities? Explore UMass Global’s business certificates and courses.

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