Rethinking Resilience

One of the qualities often sought in leaders is “resilience,” but currently the literature on resilience is limited and lacks a shared definition. A recent study by Dr. Carmelina Lawton Smith, a business professor at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, sought to explore the concept of resiliency among leaders. Her findings, published in the March International Coaching Psychology Review illuminate how some senior leaders experience resilience and specific areas for further research. These could be useful for campus community builders seeking to succeed in a rapidly changing higher education context. 

Among the shortcomings of previous studies on resilience is that they’ve primarily focused on those who experience stress as it’s clinically defined. These are often nurses and military personnel, whose experiences may not translate into an organizational context. Additionally, most previous studies have used a quantitative approach to measuring resilience, meaning one either is to some degree resilient or is not. This might not take into consideration the many settings in which a leader could need to be resilient; rather it treats them the same. Also problematic, there is not a shared definition of “resilience,” with some seeing it as a series of attributes and other as a process.  

Therefore, Smith investigated a small group of senior professionals from the public and private sector using a series of one-on-one interviews and coding responses to determine themes. Participants had all completed executive coaching sessions with different providers but not about resilience specifically. Smith’s questions were future-oriented, focusing on participants’ conceptualization and use of techniques related to resilience.   

Researchers previously had theorized three approaches to resilience.  

The “asset approach” considers someone’s ability to be resilient based on a series of skills or characteristics (e.g., emotion regulation, impulse control, optimism). However, there is little consensus on these traits, and it “implies that these assets, once gained, should endure,” Smith wrote. “… This would mean that an individual with ‘a high resilience score’ should be resilient in all contexts, but also that resilience would consistent over time. One might then question if this is always the case.”  

The second approach focuses on a system of resiliency in which “individuals build and conserve ‘resources.’ Resources are aspects important to the individual and can include such things as mastery, self-esteem, or socio-economic status,” according to Smith. Therefore, someone who normally is resilient could be less so if they were experiencing a depletion of their resources (e.g., lack of sleep, financial stress), indicating resilient as more transient than having a set of definite skills.  

A third approach from the literature is more holistic in that it relies not only on individuals’ skills but also incorporates their learned ability to adapt to new challenges. It is developmental and recognizes that specific circumstances can influence someone’s resilience.  

Smith found that participants in her study understood and experienced resilience with more of a process orientation, indicating the “asset approach” was not sufficient in conceptualizing resilience. Specifically, they commented that resilient leaders must do more than “bounce back” from a situation; rather it could be summarized as: “Conquering the past, exerting control over the present, and having courage for the future.” Participants discussed how they learned from past experiences, were able “to deal with what’s going on in the moment,” and could “face unknown risks in the future … anticipating potential adversity.” It was more than an ability to reframe disappointment and overcome failure. 

Participants also alluded to resilience relating to one’s resources as in the systemic approach, using terms and metaphors about ones “reserves,” “fuel,” “battery,” and “energy.” Too much change all at once was discussed as depleting those resources. Smith wrote: “Leaders seem to be well versed in dealing with problems; it ‘comes with the territory.’ However, when too many issues accumulate, frequently across multiple contexts, their normal resilience starts to fail, perhaps where demand exceeds supply.” 

A surprising finding from Smith’s study was relatively absent from literature on resilience in other contexts: When leaders’ values were compromised, they were less resilient. “The picture that emerges is of capable individuals who are taking responsibility for resolving issues by applying problem and emotion-focused strategies that require the application of their skills and assets,” Smith reported. “Yet when faced with a clash of values, both these strategies seemed inadequate. The clear message was that ‘values matter’ for leaders being resilient.” Essentially, as leaders expended energy managing a conflict with their personal values, they had fewer resources available to recover or sustain overall. Participants described how clarifying their values was necessary to being resilient. “Highlighting personal energy systems and discussing values may be a way to support other populations in becoming more resilient, and so could provide interesting areas for future research,” Smith wrote. 

This was a small study limited to business leaders in the United Kingdom. Future studies could explore resilience as it relates to leaders in higher education or union and activities specifically. Additionally, the study aimed to provide insights for executive coaches, and it is unknown how many higher education leaders use such services or whether the findings would translate to advisor or supervisor situations. However, this is one of the few studies that is outside of a clinical field and that examines leaders in organizational settings.  

As campus community leaders begin a new academic year, which often involves increased concurrent changes and decreased resources, situations calling for resilience may be abundant. With that in mind, it could be helpful to consider one’s ability to be resilient as more than a finite set of skills, requiring sufficient “fuel” and values congruence. 


Smith, C.L. (2017). Coaching for leadership resilience: An integrated approach. International Coaching Psychology Review, 12(1), 6–23. 

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