I’ll tell you something: Successful people actively seek out adversity

By listening to executive leaders, we can rethink personal resilience, says Adam Turner

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Now, more than ever, the personal resilience of our workforce is inescapable. We often describe personal resilience as a response to stressors. But what if I told you it’s much more than that? 

Our knowledge of personal resilience comes largely from the perspectives of people who have already experienced stressors and adversity. I became curious about what we could learn by taking a strengths-based perspective and examining resilience through the experiences of highly successful individuals. This led me to researching the personal resilience of executive leaders in my practice setting of healthcare. My findings provide new ways of conceptualising personal resilience and, most importantly, how we can enable it in others. Here are some highlights from what my research into this area has uncovered:

Resilience is active

The most significant discovery arising from my research is that for these executive leaders, personal resilience is not a response. It is experienced as active, continual, and about moving the situation forward for both themselves and their followers. They are always horizon scanning and seeking out stressors before they happen. This enables them to actively prepare themselves and their organisation for future stressors, or avoid them entirely. 

Banking resilience 

Social support is an established enabler of personal resilience, yet much of our knowledge focuses on this support being unidirectional. These executive leaders are highly values-driven and see their role as enabling resilience in others. However, they also crafted the concept of ‘banking’ personal resilience, knowing that helping people today will lead to this support being returned to them in the future. 

Positive framing 

We can perceive the same situation in different ways. These leaders actively frame stressors in a positive and optimistic way, for both themselves and their followers. A negative stressor can instead become a positive challenge to overcome, or opportunity to embrace. This makes it easier to manage.  

Motivational energy

These executive leaders experience personal resilience as a form of motivational energy that can be topped up like a battery and transferred between situations. Being aware of what motivates them and actively building in time for these activities enables them to maintain their resilience energy when facing challenging stressors. They may get a top-up from a motivational staff engagement activity in the morning that enables them to deal with a challenging board meeting that afternoon. 

Actively developing resilience 

While we understand personal resilience as something that can be developed, these executive leaders go further by actively seeking out stressors to learn from. They have purposefully exposed themselves to a manageable level of stress throughout their careers, such as stretch assignments, and positively framed these experiences as learning opportunities. Actively developing personal resilience in this way has enabled them to thrive when facing the significant stressors that they encounter during their daily lives.

Dr Adam Turner is national improving health and wellbeing lead at NHS England