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Think pieces

Resilient Leadership: The key to whole society resilience

Team members

Caroline Field: National Resilience Leader, PA Consulting

Ruth Crick: Professor of Learning Analytics, CEO, WildLearn Ltd

Jeremy Mead: Founder, Resilient Leaders Elements


In a world shaped by unpredictability, the role of resilient leaders has never been more critical. As nations strive to bolster their resilience against threats, including pandemics, climate change, and war, it is essential to recognise that leadership extends beyond Whitehall. The United Kingdom, in its Resilience Framework (UKGRF), underscores the need to centralise local leadership:

“A whole-of-society approach will be central to strengthening the UK’s resilience, with a revived effort to inform and empower all parts of society who can make a contribution.”

The UKGRF promotes a shift from emergency response to building societal resilience and expanding the roles of  Local Resilience Forums (LRFS) to do this with the appointment of a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) for each region. The CROs will play a pivotal role in shaping the future resilience of our society, so it is vital that they possess the right skillsets.

Traditional crisis response skills are necessary, but they are no longer sufficient. To actively build resilience at the societal level, leaders must possess a unique blend of values, skills and dispositions, with a critical shift in mindset from reactive to proactive. The CROS must empower others to lead within their communities and be the coordinator between LRF-led (top down) and community-led (bottom up) resilience building initiatives.

So what are the characteristics of those that can step up to this challenge? A resilient leader must be both resilient in themselves, lead during adversity, change and challenge but also build trust, consensus and capacity across a wide variety of systems and with a diverse range of people. We can break this down based on years of research in resilience leadership and resilience mindsets into three characteristics: “Who I am”, “How I learn” and “What I do” as a leader. These three human characteristics are key differentiators between people who can respond productively to the complex challenges of a whole of society approach to resilience and those who prefer to stay in the more familiar zone of emergency planning.

“Who I am” as a leader

This considers who you are as a leader and how you channel your emotions and motivate others in a positive and purposeful way, characterised by 2 key elements: awareness and leadership presence.

Awareness: Resilient leaders appreciate the interplay of motivations, cultures, strengths, and weaknesses within themselves and others. They use this emotional intelligence as a guide to adapt and thrive. In a crisis, this self-awareness allows leaders to make more informed decisions and empathise with the challenges faced by their teams. But their leadership goes beyond crises – their awareness extends to their everyday interactions with their communities, and their long-term strategies for resilience. In our experience, one of the most important aspects of Awareness is self-care; addressing the imbalance between being in service to others and looking after themselves enables individuals to be more confident in uncertainty and handle crisis situations more effectively.

This is common to all sectors and is acute in the armed forces where serving to lead is an explicit requirement. It also encompasses their ability to reflect on what moves them from healthy pressure, a contingent aspect of leadership, through to unhealthy stress, at which point they become unproductive. Examples of healthy pressure include the “buzz” which people can feel at the end of a busy and productive day, feeling energised rather than drained. The best leaders own their mental state and their management of it.

Leadership presence: Authenticity is the cornerstone of leadership presence. Resilient leaders stay true to themselves, their values, and their ethical code. They serve others, bringing a strong focus on achieving both personal and organisational goals. This commitment fosters trust, crucial for building and maintaining community resilience.

“How I learn” as a leader

We know from research that a Resilience Mindset is one that is constantly learning and improving. A person with a resilient mindset is characterised by a capacity to understand themselves and their learning dispositions, and an ability to navigate complex challenges to achieve a purpose that matters to them. Being ready and open to lean into uncertainty and challenge: striking a balance between determination and adaptability.

The following are core components of a resilience mindset and how I learn:

Self leadership is the starting point for leading others. It is about being the ‘pilot and not the passenger’ in our own lives. Leading in conditions of complexity and unprecedented challenge requires the capacity for a leader to literally learn their way forwards with others as they lead towards the achievement of a particular purpose, actively regulating the flow of data and information over time in the service of their goal.

Learning relationships are crucial for Resilient Leadership because no single person or discipline has all the answers; learning with and from others is not only crucial for effective leadership decisions but also for collaboratively leading others and creating the conditions for leadership to be distributed – and rewarded – throughout the system at every level. A resilient leader joins the dots between ‘people and things’ and identifies change processes that lead to greater overall resilience… they learn fast and fail fast and know that evolutionary learning is a hall mark of community resilience and that every member of the community has a role to play. For example, understanding the impact your decision may have on another department or understanding dependencies with other people and departments.

“What I do” as a leader

Resilience isn’t merely about withstanding challenges; it’s also about proactively charting a path forward for yourself and the community to achieve a shared purpose. Two key elements define what resilient leaders do.

Clarity of Direction: Resilient leaders see the big picture, understand purpose, take responsibility and are proactive. They have a clear vision of the future and a well-defined strategy to get there. They communicate this vision effectively, aligning people with a shared purpose. During adversity, this clarity of direction provides a North Star to navigate crises. During times of stability, they continue the momentum for their communities and continue an ongoing build of their strengths.

Resilient Decision-Making: Resilient leaders excel at turning valuable ideas into reality by thinking creatively about their challenges. They are skilled at sense making; aiming to understand the unique nature and complexity of the problem, and ‘zoom in and zoom out’ collating data and information, visualising the different layers and relationships in the system of interest. They challenge not only their biases but also those of others, fostering a culture of creativity, curiosity, innovation and adaptability. They consider the impact, pace, and style of their decision-making, ensuring that decisions are robust and aligned with long-term goals.


Resilient leaders are the linchpins of societal resilience. They possess resilient agency for themselves, the awareness and leadership presence to navigate complexities, paired with the clarity of direction and resilient decision-making skills to learn with and lead their communities.

As we reflect on the UK National Resilience Framework, particularly the Stronger Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) programme and the role of Chief Resilience Officers (CROs), it becomes evident that this is a pivotal moment in our nation’s approach to resilience and an opportunity to “bounce forward”. This will require cultivating the right leaders for this moment – those that can collaborate and empower others to step up in their communities to build societal resilience.