3 Ways Leaders Can Build Resilience and Keep Their Nerves in Tough Times

By Johann Berlin | Posted: March 29, 2019

When the going gets tough, we’re told the tough get going – do more, do better, and tough it out. We believe that the more time, energy, and focus we put in, the more we’ll get out of it on the other side.

But as leaders like Ariana Huffington, CEO of Thrive Global, shares, this belief in performance at any cost simply isn’t worth it in the long run. The indicator that her life was out of control came in an exhausted collapse that brought her to the hospital with a broken cheekbone.

“We founded The Huffington Post in 2005, and two years in we were growing at an incredible pace. I was on the cover of magazines and Time had chosen me as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People. But after my fall, I had to ask myself, ‘Is this what success looks like? Is this the life I wanted?’ I was working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, trying to build a business, expand our coverage, and bring in investors. But my life, I realized, was out of control.”


If you’re trying to get ahead by working yourself into the ground, at some point it’s going to be counter-productive. This performance-at-any-cost mentality actually decreases productivity – not unlike an athlete training all day without taking time to restore. We all want to come through in those moments that most impact our lives, the people we lead, and the things we care about. While hard work plays a key role, focusing exclusively on effort to the exclusion of mental and emotional restoration isn’t serving leaders or organizations well.

Peter Cooper founded Cooper Investors, a $10 billion investment management firm, in 2001. One of the firm’s core values is to be “In the Moment and Present.” This is an important tool in a business where there’s a sense of urgency to react to endless distractions, predictions, perceived risks by the media, clients, brokers, and the human desire to belong and be part of the pack.

Reducing stress and anxiety

For Cooper, techniques like meditation, yoga and restorative breathing have helped him navigate through the pressures of money management by lowering his stress and anxiety and increasing his ability to focus on what really matters – serving his clients. In challenging times, both clients and employees are looking to their leaders for signals on how to react. The more we’re able to regulate our emotions and stay calm and centered, the more we’ll elevate confidence in those around us, and the more clarity we’ll have to move forward.

When several key analysts left his firm in short succession last year due to a lack of cultural alignment with the CI values, Cooper’s self-awareness techniques made a material difference. He was able to deal with this potentially destabilizing occurrence calmly, confidently, and with a clear intention to turn a potentially negative situation into a positive opportunity.

“Before my meditation practice,” Cooper said, “my internal experience would have been quite different. I would have responded with blame, anger, negativity, and would have been concerned about the client reaction. Instead, my state of mind turned to learning and growing from challenges with minimum stress, and we were able to attract very talented replacement analysts. We were also able to use this circumstance to cement the firm’s foundational values of humility and authenticity.”

Training for defining moments

How we deal with those make-or-break opportunities that require us to perform at our absolute peak often has a far-reaching impact. Whether it’s delivering a major sales presentation, making an investment decision or coming up against an impossible coding deadline, our ability to “show up” at those critical moments can shape our business results, impact the effectiveness and health of our organizations, and define our careers forever.

Successful leaders like Cooper know that it’s essential to cultivate mindsets and cultures that can thrive in that space of opportunity, uncertainty, and unrelenting pressure. But getting to that kind of culture requires commitment, and just as importantly, an openness to trying new techniques that help build resiliency. We learn the technical skills of our professions, and we learn how to get ahead in life through trial and error. But to truly thrive in these moments requires a high level of self-mastery. This means building our physiologies and emotional agility so that we can respond – rather than react – when the stakes are highest.

Approaches individuals and organizations can turn to

Just as we cultivate our physical muscles, we can stimulate greater mental hygiene and emotional regulation. A big part of that is proactively creating space for using restorative techniques, before those high pressure moments happen. We’ve all experienced the tunnel vision that comes when we’re working nonstop and there’s still more demand than capacity. When the big pressure moment comes, can we respond well if we aren’t in good condition?

Here are just a few of the techniques that leaders and teams are using to mitigate burnout and increase performance in high pressure situations:  


Different breaths have different effects (calming, stimulating, etc.), but in general, breathing is one of the simplest ways to reset. Breathing is the only part of our autonomic nervous system we can control, and breath is always grounded in the present moment. Not only do certain emotions have corresponding breath patterns, but different breaths can actually change your emotions.


As counterintuitive as it might seem, allowing the mind to relax, wander, and dissolve through meditation can help us focus when we need to. Research suggests that meditation improves creativity, cognitive functioning, emotional stability, regulation, and response to stress – with enduring effects on brain functioning.


To combat a negative stress response, we must learn to be aware of the cues. When the pressure moment comes, you may notice that you’re feeling an emotion, or your mind looks for the negative in the situation. The minute you notice, you have a choice and an ability to respond. Knowing your triggers in advance can help you see the cues coming. The goal is to build up your resilience so that you don’t get caught in a stress response, which won’t serve you in the moment.

Showing up for the things that matter most

The quality of our mind and emotions not only defines our ability to show up but also can determine the quality of our lives. In our increasingly complex business environment, a growing number of leaders are learning that pushing ever harder may be a necessity, but the more restored, resilient, and healthy we are mentally and emotionally, the more we can draw on that when our defining moment arrives.

This article was previously published on Real Leaders and is republished here with the author’s permission.

Johann Berlin creates resilience in business by strengthening the connections between individuals, teams, and organizations to achieve greater purpose.