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The art of optimising resilience pillars - a road map for female leaders

07 Jan 2020 | Dr Jummy Okoya In advance of our inaugural Women in HE conference, Dr Jummy Okoya from the University of East London offers her knowledge on how female leaders can build their resilience and optimise it, and offer evidence-based recommendations on how to achieve sustainable high performance.

The current business climate is characterised by multidimensional complexities and uncertainties which require leaders who can blend passion and perseverance to achieve performance. Irrespective of business sector, leaders are often mostly concerned about adding value and achieving high performance for themselves and their team.

A study conducted by Accenture (a global research study entitled Women Leaders and Resilience: Perspectives from the C-Suite), reports that more than two-thirds (71%) of surveyed senior level executives believe that women are slightly more resilient than men. If that is the case, it is vital that we know what resilience is, what role each aspect of resilience plays in developing and strengthening our “resilience muscles” and indeed how female leaders can optimise these muscles to serve them well during adversity.

Resilience has been defined as the psychological capacity to adapt to stressful circumstances and to bounce back from adverse events allowing us to absorb challenges and rebound stronger than before. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant argue in their book (Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy) that resilience is a type of muscle that contracts during good times and expands during bad times and the best way to develop resilience is through hardship. Ungar (2019) puts this slightly differently as being “resourced” and not being “rugged”.

Experience has taught me through my leadership journey that resilience is not about being fiercely independent but rather being intentional in developing, nurturing and surrounding myself with support networks such as helpful colleagues at work, and friends and family whom I may call upon when needed. Our resilience can be fortified through a combination of our internal (mindset, strengths, thoughts, emotions and behaviour) and external resources to support us through challenging periods and helps us sustain good habits that we have developed.

Researchers have suggested different ways to develop our resilience muscles but most of the recommendations can be summed up under these five areas or pillars. Each pillar contributes to the overall resilience level of most leaders, but it is important to keep in mind that strengthening one pillar positively impacts the other pillars.  

Resilience pillars

1. Energy – sustaining and renewing physical, mental and emotional energy

2. Future focus – having a sense of purpose and direction

3. Inner drive – self efficacy, motivation and perseverance

4. Flexible thinking – open mindedness and cultivating a growth mindset

5. Strong relationship – developing positive professional and personal relationships. Becoming chief help-seeker, and asking and giving help which encourages psychological safety.

The resilient leader

Susan Colantuono described leadership as “using the greatness in you to achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes by engaging the greatness of others.” To achieve extraordinary outcomes requires Grit, identifying your character Strengths and nurturing all five pillars of Resilience.

One of the key traits of a resilient leader is the ability to bring themselves, their team and their organisation through difficult times without compromising their health and wellbeing. This doesn’t make difficult times easy, but rather it leverages the situation and makes it meaningful, productive and an opportunity for high-growth experiences (Blair, 2016). Resilient leaders are expected to cope well under pressure, in fact they may even thrive on it. It is important to keep in mind that resilience is a dynamic process and not an individual state. Resilient leaders must develop the ability to identify and negotiate resources which may help them navigate difficult situations, some of which may exist in their environment.

Many people wonder where resilience comes from? Our resilience muscles are influenced by our genes and the coping skills we develop from negative experiences which can provide a platform to learn and build greater resilience. Whilst resilience is partly a product of our personality and genetic make-up, these are also skills that can be learnt and work in combination to increase our resilience.

Optimising resilience pillars

  • Develop a positive and powerful identity In order to optimise our inner drive pillar there is a need to extend our understanding of who we are by developing a positive and powerful identity. Self-efficacy, motivation and perseverance are elements of this pillar. These inner resources are all important and each one of them can contribute to our sense of identity, optimise resilience and personal transformation.

  • Cultivate your inner resources

  • Focus and engage your strengths Know and engage your strengths in creative ways. Remember the strengths you have used in the past to pull through adversities and reflect on how they can be applied to overcome the current challenge. Developing greater understanding and awareness of our natural talents and strengths gives us energy and confidence to unleash our unique self upon which we can build on and contribute to release the greatness in others. Some caveats to engaging our strengths is to avoid overusing strengths that might not serve you or others well and which may lead to burnout. Secondly, you must find ways to recognise when you are underutilising, or shutting down, the strengths that serve you or others. Finally, to identify, mitigate, and bring in others who can support you in areas of non-strengths, where you may lack knowledge, or skills.
  • Be future focused Look for and propose solutions by being solution-focused and focusing on what you want to achieve for your organisation. Having a sense of purpose and direction helps to move you towards your goals.
  • Manage your energy Be proactive by remaining focused on your physical, mental and emotional health during stressful situations. Act to eat right, get the sleep you need, remember to breathe, focus on gratitude and other actions that are important to a healthy life. Take regular recovery breaks. When we are overworked it is difficult to access our empathy, creativity and productivity. Instead, our ability to cope and regulate becomes distorted, causing us to become reactive to the environment and wearing down our resilience, wellbeing and performance.

Cultivate your external resources

  • Develop supportive relationships

Prof Wayne Baker recommends that leaders should see their role as the “chief help-seeker”. Leaders are more likely to make better decisions, tap into available resources, and be more effective as a leader when they ask for help, feedback, and input from others. This can help with developing high quality connections with people at work, and also promote psychological safety in the organisation. Psychological safety is a sense of belonging to a team where you can interact without the fear of embarrassment, marginalisation or punishment. Research is telling us that we are wired to connect and to be more other-centred than self-centred. When we connect well with others, we are healthier and perform better.

Final thoughts, the feeling of happiness comes from four brain chemicals: dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin and serotonin. We need to use these chemical reactions more intelligently by establishing neurological habits of optimising our resilience. A habit takes repetition and at first, it doesn't feel good because it is unfamiliar. Therefore, focus on developing external routines which aid repetition and build new neural pathways over time.

Top tips for optimising resilience

  1. Identify your strengths and engage them in more creative ways.
  2. Take regular recovery breaks as you work.
  3. Build high quality connections.
  4. Turn on your happy brain chemicals to promote neurological habits.
  5. Eat wisely, sleep well, breathe slowly and cultivate positive social connections


Jummy Okoya is Associate Programme Leader for MSc Human Resource Management at the University of East London and Chair of the Women’s Network. She is passionate about gender parity and using her leadership experience to support women new to leadership. She is also a multisector positive psychology consultant focusing on wellbeing and human flourishing.

Jummy is a speaker on the panel Focus on women into leadership, the glass cliff and work-life balance at our inaugral Women in HE conference on 23 January. Find out more and book here.




Blair, M. (2016) This Simple Leadership Behavior Also Increases Resilience 

The Dark Side of Resilience, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Derek Lusk, August 16, 2017.

Leading Women: Solutions for Closing the Leadership Gender Gap

Michelle Mcquaid resilience podcast 

Ungar, M (2019) Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and The True Path To Success.


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