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Do Leaders Need to Toughen Up?

written by Emma Judge 16 June 2007

Emma Judge, MAPP, is the founder of Positive Organizations, applying the principles of Positive Psychology to the world of work through coaching, leadership development and links with academia. Full bio.

Emma's articles are here.

When we face setbacks or challenges resilience is essential – helping us think flexibly and accurately about how to deal with the situation and building our ‘psychological capital’ over time. The Penn Resiliency Program teaches such skills to young people and the research suggests that this helps them solve problems and decreases their chances of depression later on in their adolescence.

Water moving around an impediment

Water moving around an impediment

But what of leaders and the organizations they lead? What happens when they hit a bump in the road? Many pick themselves up and recover – but it often takes longer, and is more painful than it needs to be. I experienced one such ‘bump’ close up – working with a team that had been extremely successful for as long as anyone could remember that suddenly stalled. It didn’t crash and burn but the top line stopped growing, which felt like the same thing.

People responded in a number of ways. Some wanted an explanation. This makes rational sense – we’ve got to know how we ended up here in order to know what to do next. But the analysis also seemed to make people feel better – perhaps the data creates the illusion of control and certainty. Some started to feel insecure – worrying about their own reputations, careers and futures. Others started to doubt their own capabilities, taking personal responsibility to an extreme. Others looked to blame, ideally outside the organization and totally outside their control. Functional barriers went up and the shutters came down, at a time when seeking the help of others and lateral solutions was exactly what was needed. Finally many quite literally closed their office doors – they didn’t know what to say to the people who worked for them so they just said nothing.

It’s important to say that these were all good leaders and good people. They weren’t incompetent, nor were they dishonest or shirking their responsibilities. They just hadn’t led in this context before and didn’t have the skills in place to help them through. As a result they, and the organization, lacked the resilience to bounce back. The end result was that two significant resources were ‘wasted’ – time and the energy and commitment of the organization to get back on track.

Resilient organizations are able to identify and manage (not ignore and work around) these perfectly natural and normal reactions – and then get on with the job in hand, think accurately and creatively about the situation they find themselves in and engage the people who can make things happen.

This sounds a lot like what we teach in the Penn Resiliency Program. Perhaps if these skills were taught and used more in organizations, then the way we deal with the every day adversities of work might help us increase our chances of more effectively managing, or even avoiding altogether, the larger organizational setbacks which have much more serious implications.



Water moving around an impediment courtesy of oedipusphinx — — — — theJWDban

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Nicholas Hall 20 June 2007 - 5:42 pm


Very interesting. I’m sure you can’t say too much and give away the company.

I’m wondering, what specific steps could this company have taken, according to the PRP model? Begin to brainstorm among the upper management? Simply acknowledge the downhill slide publicly? “Communication” pops to mind, though that is a blanket term for specific behaviors they could have engaged in. What might be those behaviors?

I’m also asking because it would be very interesting to have a PRP model retro-fitted to work in the boardroom.


Emma Judge 22 June 2007 - 4:28 am

I think just separating out the ‘ABC’s would have been a good start and acknowledging the emotional and personal nature of the experience – that tends to be brushed under the carpet even though it is having a major impact on the way people resond to the situation. This might have cleared the way for more more clarity about their own state of mind, more flexible and accurate thinking about the situation, and greater confidence in communicating more authentically with their teams.

My own view is that resilience, particularly at senior levels, is an extremely important skill for organisations, especially given the fast, ever changing nature of almost any organisation you can think of. I say senior levels because they are sometimes the team that need to quickly gain clarity about next steps when a business even looks like it might be heading for rough waters (mixing my metaphors on this one, but there you go !).


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