Learning From Adversity: Moving to Resilient Leadership

If there is one thing we’ve all shared over the past year, it’s adversity. The degree to which we’ve experienced it, embraced it or denied it is unique. It’s created hardship for many and unrelenting hours of service for others. Whatever your experience, it’s real.

I’ve been talking and writing about leadership in a VUCA world over the past few years (if you’re unfamiliar with this managerial phrase, VUCA is short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). I anticipated it would grow over the next 5-10 years. And then BAM! Within a matter of weeks in early 2020, VUCA became our new reality. With the worldwide pandemic upon us, we’re truly living within volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

As a leader, this is the time to take a deep breath and reflect on how you’ve managed your adversity. There is no right or wrong, good or bad. Taking the time to deeply understand how you’ve stepped toward the adversity – including how this has affected others – provides important information on your leadership. In fact, examining your response to adversity as a leader is necessary as we move toward the next stages of this universal pandemic.

This reflection requires us to start by looking inward at ourselves and moving outward to our influence on others.

It begins with curiosity. Taking a deep look inside yourself – without judgment. I suggest asking yourself the following kinds of questions, each based on 3 fundamental aspects of your experience – Isolation, Change and the Unknown:


  • Have I felt isolated and/or trapped?
  • How has being at home with others been difficult?
  • Have I felt heard and supported?
  • What’s changed in me as a result of being isolated?


  • How has my sleeping been affected?
  • Did I create physical routines to support my fitness?
  • What was my level of interest in food and eating?
  • Did I find myself worrying about my health?

Healthy thinking

  • What is my self-talk telling me?
  • Has my self-talk become more damning?
  • Am I saying “No” more often than “Yes”?
  • Am I leaning toward judgment versus curiosity?


  • Am I losing a sense of what I am here to do and be?
  • Am I drawing on my values to help propel me forward?
  • Have I leaned on my ability to choose and make decisions for myself?
  • Am I overly concerned with things beyond my control?

If we can be honest with ourselves as we answer and ponder these questions, we can begin to name what’s going on for us. This allows us to move from our flight, fight or freeze state to re-employ our brain’s prefrontal cortex.

This region of our brain contributes to various matters such as focusing one’s attention; self-monitoring; impulse control; short-term memory; managing emotional reactions; time management; reasoning; anticipating events in the environment; planning for the future; and adjusting complex behaviors.

In short, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for our higher order thinking. But here’s the rub: It takes way more energy to function than other parts of the brain. This is why it’s hard for us to change and adapt in times of stress and fear.

While I’m definitely not a neuroscientist, I do know from reading and working with clients that when we harness this part of our brain, we can manage way more effectively. The good news is that our brains are equipped with neuroplasticity – the ability to continually form new neural connections.

Re-employing our prefrontal cortex using our neuroplasticity comes through intention. It takes willpower, focused attention and mindful action.

Where does this lead us? To resilience: the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. (according to the American Psychological Association)

Join us for our 5 part series on resilience building.

Resilience takes work by asking ourselves the hard introspective questions, particularly when threats and stress surround us. Resilience is a process and skill we can deepen over and over again.

If you find yourself reacting to situations through a negative lens, that’s a clue it’s time to take a deep breath and calm yourself so you can be open. Doing this allows you to “see” more options and to react with less of a fear response. In doing so, you’re building new neural pathways.

How often during this pandemic have you felt overwhelmed or fearful? Now think about how your staff may have experienced you. Were you calm, open and present? Or might you have left them feeling unheard, anxious or unclear how to move forward?

The stronger your resilience, the greater your ability to move outward to influencing others. This part of your leadership is critical in supporting others as they navigate ambiguity and uncertainty.

Research shows that a resilient leader can have significant positive effects on employees and organizations. To put it another way, leaders with high resilience model a strong commitment, control and challenge in their approach to stressful events. Employees experience this and are more likely to adopt similar behaviors.

As we move through this pandemic and beyond, your ability as a leader to develop your resilience will have an enormous effect on how those around you are able to weather their own challenges and maintain a healthy organization.

Coach’s Questions:

What uncertainties have you faced in the last year? If you could do something over again, what would that be? What steps can you take this week to build your resilience?



This week’s Coach’s Questions Blog is written by Padraig Coach, Eve Gaudet.