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Creating an organizational culture of resilience: Resilient leaders are the key

7 min read


Volatile equities markets, rising interest rates, international turmoil and instability, unstable monetary exchanges, shrinking resources, changing employee values — all of these factors seem to be creating the “perfect storm” threatening markets and the free enterprise system.

If ever there was a time for government and organizations to be resilient, its now. But how can organizations enhance resilience? Let’s look at the most current recommendations from the finest minds.

Residing within the National Academies in Washington, D.C., is the Institute of Medicine. IOM is a nongovernmental think tank that  brings together the finest minds in the country to offer collective opinions on the pressing issues facing the country and the world. Recently, IOM was asked to provide guidance on how organizations can best weather the storms of adversity, economic downturn, and shrinking resources. According to the IOM report, organizations should prepare for adversity by developing an organizational culture of resilience.

An organizational culture of resilience may be thought of as a climate or general atmosphere within a group, organization, or community which fosters resilience in the wake of adversity. It is an environment is that perceived by the majority of members/ workers as supportive, motivating, and non-punitive. Such a culture serves as a catalyst to foster resilience, encourage innovation, stimulate personal satisfaction and growth, as well as extraordinary success.

But how can organizations foster the creation of such an environment? IOM suggests that developing resilient leaders is a key. According to IOM, resilient leaders can create the “tipping point” that changes an entire culture. Developing resilient leaders will increase the resilience of the workforce that they lead. IOM notes that in developing resilient leaders, it is especially important to focus on frontline supervisors. Frontline supervisors may be the best medium for not only initiating changes within organizations but also sustaining those changes. Once created, resilient leadership practices serve as the catalyst that inspires others to exhibit resilience and to exceed their own expectations.

My colleagues and I have sought to identify the key characteristics that resilient frontline leaders must possess. Our investigations have included analyses of Navy SEALs, presidents and corporate leaders. While there are likely many factors, we think the following supervisory characteristics are important:

1. Active optimism. Not only the belief that you will be successful, but also the drive to work in such a manner so as to create success. When a resilient attitude is present, destiny must follow. Optimistic people know they will be successful in the end. If they are not successful, its not the end! So, step one in operationalizing optimism in resilient leadership is to see the opportunity in every crisis. Have a vision of success. To borrow from the TV financial guru Jim Cramer, it’s all about finding the bull market in every economy. Step two consists of communicating forcefully and optimistically. Speak convincingly of your vision. But above all, be honest. It is not effective to present the glass as entirely full when it is not, but it can be effective to present the glass as half full, rather than half empty.

2. The ability to make a decision. The ability to avoid paralysis by analysis (overthinking). Procrastination cripples organizations. Have you ever worked for supervisors who just couldn’t make a decision? They drain the life out of any organization. They frustrate employees. They stifle growth. They foster costly turnover. Once you make a decision, have the courage to take responsibility for your actions. Taking responsibility builds trust and respect. It may be painful at times, but it’s worth it.

Remember, the only difference between humanity’s greatest successes and its most dismal failures has been the willingness to make a decision and to try relentlessly. Keep in mind, whatever is worth having is worth fighting for. It is worth failing for. Surrender nothing, and when you lose something precious to you, it should be because it was ripped away, not placidly given up. There is no shame in losing the well-fought struggle.

3. Use a moral compass to chart the destiny of your life. Work with integrity. People will notice. If your intention is to deceive, you are being dishonest. And people will notice. Gene Griessman, in his book “The Words Lincoln Lived By,” writes about an interesting twist on the notion of integrity.

“Only leaders of the highest integrity will take responsibility for plans that do not succeed. Abe Lincoln was such a leader. He shouldered the blame during the long, dangerous years of the Civil War when his advisors bickered, his generals blundered, and Union forces suffered one disastrous defeat after another,” Griessman wrote. (Sound like a modern-day organization or institution you know of?)

Soon after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln wrote Gen. George Meade. “You will follow up and attack General Lee as soon as possible before he can cross the river. If you fail this dispatch will clear you from all responsibility, and if you succeed, you may destroy it.” Integrity such as that instills loyalty and well as engenders courage to take the risks that are often necessary to succeed. But always remember these words by Warren Buffett:

“In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”

4. Be tenacious, be persistent. Realize that tenacity is a trait that few people have so it gives you a huge advantage. President Calvin Coolidge once noted that education and genius are poor predictors of success. He said perseverance is omnipotent. Set an example for those who look up to you. They will recognize tenacity is an organizational value.

5. Build organizational or departmental cohesion. Mobilize the support of others. Create a culture wherein no will be left behind. On June 28, 2005, 11 Navy SEALs and 8 Army Commandos were killed in Afghanistan when their helicopter was hit by a “luck shot,” according to a military spokesperson. The SEALs were on a mission to rescue a four-member SEAL team already engaged in a firefight with Taliban insurgents. The deaths of the rescue team made the day the deadliest in the 40-year history of the SEALS.

The fatal rescue mission was highly criticized by those outside the military community, but to those who understand the importance of “unit cohesion” and the credo “No one left behind,” no explanation nor justification was necessary. Understanding you are part of something greater than yourself is empowering. Knowing that the person behind you has your back, rather than is stabbing you in the back is empowering as well. There is strength in numbers.

Starting as soon as you can, develop friendships, support systems, networks, and cohesive task-oriented teams. Set expectations and be clear about them. Be kind, trustworthy, and reliable. Reliability may be one of the most important factors which predict success amongst others.

In sum, if you are interested in creating an organizational culture of resilience, we suggest that you begin teaching managers to become leaders — “resilient leaders,” wherein they possess the courage to act, the willingness to take responsibility for decisions regardless of outcome, and the ability to engender trust, confidence, and fidelity through a consistent pattern of acting with integrity.

George S. Everly, Jr., PhD, FAPA, is one of the founding fathers of the modern era of stress management. He is the author of numerous books and research papers. He serves on the faculties of The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He is a co-author of “STRONGER: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed” (AMACOM, 2015). For more information, visit

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