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Surviving and Thriving in Leadership

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Resilience in life and work.

Resilience is the ability to survive a crisis and thrive in a world of uncertainty. Business can often be difficult, demanding and uncertain. The journey can be complex with many twists and turns, without knowing what you’re going to encounter around the corner. Leadership during these complex journeys can be stressful and, recently, I found these attributes of leadership to be very much like my cycling tour.

Taking on Elevated Experiences

I decided to join a small group of cyclists from Portland, Oregon to cycle the Cabot Trail. The Cabot Trail is a 300km plus loop around the northern part of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. It’s considered a top-tier ride and sought-after route for cyclists from all over the world. It provides riders with glorious vistas and challenging mountainous terrain, including 12-degree ascents. Some may even consider it the world’s best ride.

While I have played my share of sports over the years, I don’t consider myself an athlete, but rather someone who stays active and lives a healthy lifestyle. As I age, my focus on wellness has become paramount. I joined the Cabot Trail cycling group thinking this would be a good way to get some enhanced exercise, while exploring the great outdoors and meeting new friends.

My riding companions, many close to 70 in age, had researched the route and understood the challenges associated with the Cabot Trail. Having lived in Nova Scotia my entire life and ‘driving’ the trail on numerous occasions, I too understood (or should have understood) the demands that lay ahead.

When Mind over Matter is a Plan

Our team would tackle the trail over four consecutive days. The journey got off to a decent start with a moderate pace and mostly rolling terrain. As the days progressed, so too did the challenges and I found myself struggling to keep pace. As I was climbing one of the steepest ascends on our second day, I knew more than ever that I would need to be resilient.

There were moments where I didn’t think I could make it. I had to fully embrace a resilient mindset and narrow my focus to just me and my bike. I couldn’t look too far ahead, as I knew I’d see the next daunting hill before I’d even successfully finished the one I was currently battling. I found that by literally keeping my head down, it allowed me to be so laser-focused on the goal to keep peddling. In this single decision, I was able to block out distractions that could knock me from a place of resilience. I couldn’t reschedule this ride. I couldn’t hire someone else to help me. It was all up to me in the hardest moments.

Thankfully, the Cabot Trail never disappointed on the downs; the only time when I really could look up and enjoy the view. So perhaps a little lesson in resilience is that we should allow ourselves a moment to take in the bigger picture, and then go back to peddling like mad. In the end, with considerable mental and physical exertion, I was able to complete the ride.

It was exhilarating and emotional, but mostly rewarding. When I crossed the finish line, it was an amazing feeling of success and accomplishment, which stayed with me for many weeks later.

The ride and experience gave me a physical reminder of the power of the mind, capacity of our bodies, and the feat that comes from being resilient

What Resilient Leaders Do

The lesson I learned from my cycling tour is that if you are going to thrive in today’s complex environment, you should consider incorporating resilience practices. This applies to all aspects of your life, including your business. Here’s how several elements that I reflected on while cycling the trail transfer to a business context.

Situational awareness leads to planning and strategies: Assess risks, identify issues, recognize that you are in a crisis, and plan accordingly.

Far too often, leaders neglect to pause and reflect on the current situation because they operate at such a fast pace. Take the time to assess your situation and plan your actions. On day three (arguably the hardest day), our de facto leaders determined some risks associated with the windy forecast. A decision was made to do the trail backwards so the wind would be at our backs. We were on our way to smooth riding, once again. The takeaway here is that your resilient plan should align with, or be grounded in, your business vision and mission. Don’t allow a crisis to distract you from your goals and direction.

Seek supports and lean into your teams: A key element when taking action to deal with setbacks is relying on and trusting your teams.

In crises, teams can flex and believe they can complete tasks and achieve results. Your top performers will step up and others will follow. Having a solid support team is critical to building resilience. This is like cyclists when drafting and riding in a pack. They are efficient and help each other maximize results. Demonstrate your support to your team and adjust your resources as needed. Your leadership, including your tone, and the collective purpose and direction you set during the crisis will play a critical role in achieving results. Be clear and decisive in your communication.

Be focused and disciplined: With your plan developed, focus on how to execute with your team. Minimize any distractions or new initiatives.

Keeping your focus locked on a target, like getting through the crisis, helps you realize what matters the most to your organization in that moment. We exist in a world where everything can seem like a simultaneous crisis. But knowing your course and keeping your head down helps you move from one obstacle to the next. I often had to just put my head down and didn’t look up at the crest of the mountain in order to finish the ride. Remember to take breaks and recharge as well. After all, you are only human.

Maintain resiliency practices: You should anticipate the need to rely on resiliency practices in your business for the foreseeable future.

The complex business environment we have come to know is likely going to be around for some time in varying degrees. So managing your business’ resiliency is a measure for success. Continually reassess your situation, bringing your future forecast back into focus. Adjust your plans where needed and build upon these resilience practices and experiences. Building resilience into your business models will help you manage a crisis, bring about a quicker recovery, and see you enjoying the rewards. Good resilience practices are like bike maintenance and route planning; every morning our team assessed the conditions, made plans, pumped the tires and lubed the chains. Now that I’ve built some resilience practices for cycling, and life, I am certainly ready for a new road trip.

Working on Your Resilience

Our recent research on global leadership trends highlighted the resilience theme. Leaders are tired and the work ahead will be demanding. As knowledge workers, ensuring that our minds and bodies remain strong is key to doing our best work. In fact, resilience will continue to be crucial to your bottom line in the coming years. According to a Digital Leadership Academy study, companies with resilience competencies among leaders were 1.8 times more likely to be high performing in areas of workforce productivity.

If you’re interested in learning more about you and your team’s resilience, we can assess and measure it for you. In doing so, we can also identify what may be taking away from your resilience.

Enjoy the ride. And when needed, just put your head down and pedal! Seek out support and help to ride alongside you.


Buddy Walzak is an accomplished senior executive with a track record of achieving impact and delivering results. He leverages 35 years of public sector leadership to support strategic advisory work. His work experience includes administrative and operational responsibilities for a central government department. He's also led the coordination and advancement of Nova Scotia’s strategic interests, including the development of its international engagement strategies. His success was achieved by his ability to maintain productive regional, national and international relationships. Through partnership and leadership, he helped advance economic, government and international objectives to achieve increased trade and economic benefits for Nova Scotians.

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