How can leaders develop resilience in their followers or teams?

I recently had to do a short essay on developing resilience in followers or teams – it is not particularly in line with the core purpose of this blog, but might be some useful food for thought nonetheless…


How can leaders develop resilience in their followers or teams?

Leaders have responsibility for people under them, or the output of these people; a follower is one of these people; and a team is a collection of followers which may or may not have additional levels of leadership within it.  “Resilience” is a quality that enables something or someone to return to the shape that it previously had after enduring a stressor or failure. Leaders are faced with multiple challenges, one of which is often setting the conditions that enable followers to be resilient enough to recover from failure. Two symbiotic elements must be established to enable this recovery: the right culture, and the right processes. Responsibility for this lies with the leader.

“Culture” is difficult to define – it is intangible, and metrics that indicate progress are largely subjective – but it is nevertheless driven by the leader.  He or she[1] must establish a culture where people are comfortable trying and failing.  Indeed, in some industries he should encourage “failing fast”, and this demands openness, honesty, and trust amongst followers and leaders.

The right culture must underpin the right process of learning, where failures and subsequent root-cause analysis – asking questions such as “Why did the failure happen?” and “So what?” – can enable the implementation of procedures that prevent the failure happening again; Syed’s Blackbox Thinking provides a good model.  Importantly, this Lessons-Learned event should be broadcast widely, and the leader himself should be exposed to it.

Implemented well a leader can use this tool to take his team beyond resilience, ideally stretching them until they are closer to Taleb’s Antifragile.  Resilience is admirable, but only brings people back to where they were. Robustness merely prevents challenges having any effect.  Antifragility acknowledges that some failures are beyond the control of an organisation – Clausewitzian friction does not simply exist on the battlefield – and allows followers and teams to be better positioned after a failure.

However, whilst there must be some degree of tolerating (and even encouraging) failure, there must also be some degree of removing the relentlessly fragile; those people that are unable to recover.  Not only is the judgement of where this balance lies a key role of the leader, responsibility for implementation of it lies with the leader. This is a real challenge; encouraging the right culture and enabling the aforementioned root-cause analysis while avoiding negative blame is ferociously difficult and demands buy-in from across the followers.  If done right, and if sufficient attempts to learn lessons and improve the resilience (or, even better, the antifragility) of a follower, have not borne fruit, then that individual may be better suited elsewhere.

This requirement is underpinned by the dichotomous challenge that a leader faces and must recognise – there is not necessarily alignment between resilience in followers and resilience in teams.  Although the two are not mutually exclusive, a team may become collectively more resilient by losing some people.  Goldman Sachs and GE are both examples of organisations that trim their bottom 10%; it is not a concept without precedence. If it feels uncomfortable, it should do.  Good leaders understand that the right decisions are often the hardest. However, by retaining a firm understanding of what the end state for the organisation is – and it could be anything from shareholder revenue to a happy and comfortable workforce – a leader is able to understand where the balance lies. By developing the right culture and process, and retaining this strategic vision, a leader can take his team and followers to resilience… and beyond.

[1] Henceforth simply “he” for simplicity.