Resilience Is Learned—Here’s How To Teach It

Think of a top performer, someone you deeply admire and respect. Most people will name athletes or entertainers, others might mention business, political or social leaders. Do you have someone in mind?

Good. Now, unlikely as it may seem, at some point in their career—likely at many points—your star failed. They missed a shot, received a bad review or got dumped. When this happened, they probably had a reaction just like any other human would. They got down on themselves, blamed someone or something else, and felt like crawling into bed and pulling the sheets over their heads. But they didn’t. Instead they were resilient. They learned from their failure and got back in the game.

Now, think of a high performing team. Same thing: when that team lost a game or failed at a new venture, they got down on themselves, started bickering, and probably thought about quitting. But they didn’t. Again, resilience.

In our careers spanning over three decades we have worked with thousands of the world’s best athletes, business leaders, military operators and first responders. These superstars usually have had superior physical, intellectual or creative attributes, but not the best physical, intellectual or creative attributes. Based on our experience, the difference between good enough and excellent isn’t physical at all, it is entirely between the ears and above the neck. What makes the best the best is their mental approach, and these disciplines are not innate, they are learned. Top performers learn excellence.

So do top teams. Cultural excellence in an organization isn’t innate; it has to be nurtured by leadership.

Resilience is the ability to withstand, recover and improve from adversity. It is a critical component of excellence. But how do you learn and practice resilience? How do the best performers become resilient if they aren’t born that way? And how can leaders inspire resilience in their teams?

Stay in the circle

Imagine you are standing in a circle. Also in the circle are the things you control: your attitude, effort and behavior. Everything else is outside the circle. For example, you can’t control whether or not it’s going to rain, but you can control whether or not you bring an umbrella. The umbrella is in the circle, the rain is not.

Practicing resilience is all about staying in the circle, focusing on the things you can control: attitude, effort, behavior. It requires activating all three simultaneously, one or two won’t cut it.

For example, attitude is often manifested via self-talk. As you go through your day and encounter the normal minor challenges and setbacks, notice what you say to yourself. When adversity happens, do you blame yourself? Or do you play the victim, blaming others? Either way, when this negative self-talk kicks in, interrupt and change it. Speak the resilience you want to see in yourself into existence. Literally!

Teams experience negative self-talk too. Most leaders endeavor to create a workplace culture where opposing viewpoints are encouraged; diversity of perspective leads to better decisions. But sometimes those messages start to skew negative, which can be a sign of attitude, and resilience, faltering.

Astute leaders can sense and counter negative team self-talk, although doing so is more complex than quieting the voice inside your head. A simple positive mantra won’t do it. But the message is similar and needs to be communicated consistently: let’s learn from this and get smarter. We have what it takes to be successful.

Next, effort. Setbacks can kill energy, but top performers and teams learn just the opposite: setbacks energize them. They draw confidence from their resilience. While a setback isn’t exactly good news, it’s not that bad when you know that you are better than your competition at learning and improving from it.

Capitalize on personal and team setbacks by choosing smart effort. Double down on the work, but ensure that it’s not just doing the same work again. Remember the definition of insanity!

Which brings us to behavior. Adopting an I’ll get them next time attitude and doubling down on effort is meaningless without learning and adjusting. Once the emotional dust has settled from a setback, review what happened and why, and adjust your process accordingly. If the setback is team-based, get the team together to objectively assess the outcome and the process that got you there. Quell the finger pointing and get to the root causes of failure. Then adjust processes and tactics to address them.

Ignore stuff outside the circle

While focusing on the stuff in the circle, don’t get distracted by stuff outside of it. Ignore what other people are saying. (The exception to this is if the feedback comes from a trusted source and is based in evidence and expertise.) Ignore external factors. And while you should always learn from competition, you need to ignore it as well. All of these things are outside your control. Ignoring them frees your mind and spirit to concentrate instead on the stuff you can do to get better.

Practicing resilience

One reason top athletes and entertainers are so good at resilience is that they have plenty of opportunity to practice. The best baseball hitters get about 400 at bats every season and fail in the majority of them, while Broadway performers take the stage six days a week and twice on Sunday. If they have a bad performance, they have to be resilient. The next at bat or show is hours away.

This isn’t always the case in other fields. You are likely not making dozens of big presentations every week, and you may only deliver a few keynotes a year. So you don’t get many chances to practice bigtime resilience. Therefore, to practice resilience, embrace small time risk.  In your personal life, take on new things where success is far from certain. Go into white spaces where others have feared to tread. Or just get better at rebounding from the small setbacks of life. Burn dinner? You’ll Julia Child it next time. Late to pick up the kids carpool after school? Hello Lewis Hamilton (while obeying all traffic laws, of course)!

Adopt the same attitude with your teams. Taking on small risks and making small mistakes is a great way to build resilience muscle. Create an environment where it’s okay to try solving old problems in new ways. Failure is okay, as long as you do it quickly (don’t throw good money or resources after bad), learn from it, and don’t stigmatize it. Ensure you have guardrails in place so that small failures don’t become big ones. Then give the team the freedom to be creative.

As you and your teams practice resilience it will become habit. Your first response to failures or setbacks will become an eagerness to learn, get better, and get back at it. This is the path to excellence.

Eric Potterat and Alan Eagle

Eric Potterat, PhD, is a clinical and performance psychologist and a leading expert in individual and organizational performance optimization. Eric retired as a commander from the US Navy after twenty years of service, during which he helped create the mental toughness curriculum used during Navy SEALs BUD/S training. Alan Eagle is an author and executive communications consultant, helping leaders and companies shape and tell their stories. He spent 16 years at Google, partnering with executives to communicate the company’s story to clients, partners, employees, and the public. He is the co-author of the books How Google Works and Trillion Dollar Coach. Eric and Alan are the coauthors of Learned Excellence: Mental Disciplines for Leading and Winning from the World's Top Performers (Harper Business; February 2024).

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Eric Potterat and Alan Eagle

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