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The key to developing resilience: lessons from Twickenham

17 December 2018

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How do business leaders develop resilience? At a lunchtime seminar between the men’s and women’s Varsity rugby matches at Twickenham on 6 …

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How do business leaders develop resilience? At a lunchtime seminar between the men’s and women’s Varsity rugby matches at Twickenham on 6 December, Dr Philip Stiles of Cambridge Judge Business School and a panel of sports figures discussed tips ranging from adaptability to knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses.

The key to developing resilience: lessons from Twickenham
Dr Philip Stiles
Dr Philip Stiles

Dr Philip Stiles, University Senior Lecturer in Corporate Governance at Cambridge Judge and Director of the Centre for International Human Resource Management, discussed these issues with Sue Day, who has 59 caps for England is now Chief Financial Officer of the Rugby Football Union; Steph Cook, who won the gold medal in modern pentathlon at the Sydney Olympics after rowing at Cambridge, and is now a doctor; and Karena Vleck, who played in the inaugural Women’s Varsity Match in 1988 and was general counsel at the RFU until 2017.

As Philip outlined it, resilience is the ability to be both personally and professionally successful in the midst of a high-pressure, fast-paced and continuously changing environment. In fact, resilience is an ordinary and not extraordinary trait in people – but even the most resilient people experience difficulty or distress in the midst of such resilience. While emotional pain and sadness are common in the face of major adversity or trauma, the road to resilience lies in working through such emotions.

In the seminar, Karena asked Sue and Steph to recount examples of physical resilience they have experienced, such as managing injuries or maintaining high sporting performance under stress; to discuss their worst moments psychologically and physically; and to share how they managed fatigue. They also discussed minimising focus on blame or guilt, maintaining a positive self-image and optimism, and remaining confident in the face of disappointment.

A few themes emerged:

  • A strong sense of self-worth, self-reliance and confidence in your problem-solving ability are important factors in resilience. A good knowledge of your relative strengths and weaknesses can provide a sense of mastery to get through difficult moments.
  • People who are adaptable tend to be more resilient. This may include an ability to deal with ambiguity, think flexibly, recognise errors in your own thinking, and the ability to “reframe” negative, unhelpful or inaccurate thoughts.
  • Purposefulness helps build resilience. This may include healthy expectations, motivation, and persistence in the face of difficulty.
  • Social support can also boost resilience, because high levels of such support are associated with good health.

Other ways to boost resilience include understanding and clarifying roles, goals and expectations – be it in business or sports; demonstrating support, trust and mutual respect of both business and personal priorities; and experimenting with new ways of working to help achieve goals in one’s work and personal lives.

This article was published on

17 December 2018.