The Top Five Ways for Leaders to Build Resilience in Teams

Imagine this. You’ve persuaded 27 people to follow you on a grand adventure. You get blindsided by an unexpected weather event, and you miscalculate your ability to proceed on your journey despite obvious, ominous signs.

As a consequence of your misplaced optimism, you are all stranded with no way to return to civilisation, and absolutely no way to communicate your plight. No-one would have the means and wherewithal to rescue you anyway. With limited supplies, you are doomed.

How will you maintain morale? Actually, how will you prevent the group from lynching you on the spot!

You might know the story of Ernest Shackleton’s failed 1914 Antarctic expedition. It’s one of those humbling tales that gives you perspective when you think you have a leadership challenge.

Not only did Shackleton maintain his position as leader, he maintained morale through exceptionally challenging circumstances, devised a rescue plan, and endured incredible personal hardship to save his entire crew. He was lauded by a member of his team as “The greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none.”

In our own lifetime we have witnessed other impressive leaders – Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern – people strengthened by adversity. Whatever your politics, you have to admire their ability to survive and even thrive despite profound challenges. Moreover, they seem to have strengthened their followers in the process.

What does it take?

During these difficult pandemic days of extended lock-downs it is as easy to overestimate our COVID-19 challenge, as it is to underestimate it. Thanks to modern medicine, our affluence as a society, containment measures, mitigation and healthcare capacity, this is hardly the Black Death that killed up to 200 million people and a third of the total population of Europe, or Smallpox, or the Spanish Flu.

But COVID-19 has destroyed livelihoods and has broken families who have lost people closest to them. Some are suffering the scourge of domestic violence with even less ability than normal to escape or counter their abuse. Depression is taking a toll, and the anxious and emotionally vulnerable in our society suffer disproportionately at this time. Many are impacted by the challenges of home schooling, social isolation and fraying relationships.


What can we learn from Shackleton, Mandela, Ardern, Merkel and others? What are the real-life leadership lessons to build resilience in our people and our organisations?


Look after the people, but also look after the business

Our first role as leaders is to have abundant empathy for the challenges faced by our people. That’s a given. But one of my favourite maxims is: “To look after the crew and not to look after the ship, is not yet to look after the crew”. As the owner of an enterprise, responsible for the jobs of many employees, I am acutely aware of this truism. What use is it if our business fails, people are retrenched, and their dependents suffer.

The threats to your workplace might not be as existential as ours, but maintaining our purpose – keeping our focus on our organisation or team’s role – is not the opposite of caring for our people; it is a way of caring for our people both long term and short term.

Shackleton made sure that his crew had meaningful work to do, even when they were stranded on an icefloe during months of almost perpetual darkness. His team conducted scientific experiments even when their results were most likely to be lost with their own demise. He also ensured his men worked at preparing themselves and their equipment for a desperate survival mission when spring would arrive.

Learn and grow

Hopefully you have a learning culture in your team during normal times. During abnormal times, this is even more important. You may not have the headspace for demanding, formal learning, but there are many other ways to develop skills and knowledge. When Mandela was in prison on Robben Island he not only continued his own education, he educated his fellow inmates. Some called the remote prison “Nelson Mandela University”. Many of the inmates left the island much better educated than they had arrived.

Now you might argue that they had time on their hands. Yes, but even during “normal” times our lives are pretty full.

As leaders we can stimulate learning, provide incentives and opportunities, and set an example. Learning is hugely life-affirming. We should make that possible.

Maintain rituals

Shackleton celebrated every birthday during his grim time waiting for winter to pass, observed Sundays and maintained inventory checks and equipment maintenance schedules.

We’ve seen the couples who have date-nights even during lockdown, families who have formal dinners or who celebrate backyard birthdays with virtual friends. In our own business we have maintained our formal monthly strategy and learning sessions, sometimes complete with a shared lunch – the same dish cooked by all members of our team in their own homes and shared on screen. We have virtual water-cooler chats and Friday drinks. We still celebrate birthdays the same way, and we have welcomed two new team members with the same sense of occasion we do when at the office.

You have to adapt, and monitor the cringe factor, and be mindful of those who find it all too much, but having the drudgery of lockdown punctuated by meaningful rituals is a very good thing.

Talk about resilience

There is a great deal of good content on resilience available. We have dedicated parts of our monthly development sessions, and some other meetings, to examples of great resilience. Victor E. Frankl’s story of how he survived a concentration camp had a profound impact on us. We have shared personal experiences, and have used an appreciative enquiry approach to look at why we have survived difficult times.

Examining Jacinda Ardern’s response to the Christchurch massacre, or the reasons for Angela Merkel’s longevity as leader despite several crises are positive exercises. The Stockdale Paradox and Jim Stockdale’s lessons from surviving a Vietnam war prison stimulates great discussions on personal resilience. It is so important not to preach at people or undervalue their personal experiences, but to create opportunities to discuss and internalise the wisdom of others’ experiences. It helps us to contextualise our current suffering.

Have the right amount, and the right kind of fun

One of my enduring beliefs as a leader has been to never have a team-building event with a team that needs it. Paradoxical as it sounds, it is true – forcing people to have fun when they can’t stand one another leads to a bigger problem. Great teams, on the other hand, really benefit from good social interaction.

The secret with problem teams is to have work-focused team building. Have a session on how to improve a specific area of concern, and do it in a way that embodies the culture you would like to have. Be positive, consultative and inclusive. And do your best to lighten the process so that it is interesting and enjoyable.

If you have a team that is already positive and engaged, dial up the fun factor during tough times. Despite a healthy proportion of introverts on our team, we have had themed birthday parties, shared our baby and school photos, built a zoom background puzzle we designed ourselves, had a trivia session about our company, and held a virtual concert.

When I first read about Shackleton I was struck by his wisdom to keep a banjo, even when everyone had to dispose of personal belongings to reduce weight in their life craft. It was used for sing-alongs and the birthday celebrations his crew had on the ice. He called the banjo “vital mental medicine”.

These five, seemingly simple ideas can be applied with great sophistication.

  1. Look after the people, but also look after the business
  2. Learn and grow
  3. Maintain rituals
  4. Talk about resilience
  5. Have the right amount, and right kind of fun

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