Leadership Lab | Developing Personal Resilience – An interview with Mark Orpen-Lyall

It’s no secret, we LOVE talking about resilience. Why? Because in the face of constant and often unpredictable change in the world in which we live, it’s the resilient who will make a positive impact on people and the planet.

It’s no secret, we LOVE talking about resilience. Why? Because in the face of constant and often unpredictable change in the world in which we live, it’s the resilient who will make a positive impact on people and the planet. 

In this edition of Leadership Lab, we interview Dr Mark Orpen-Lyall, an Organisational Psychologist whose work has focused on understanding the nature of personal resilience and how to develop it within ourselves. In this interview, Mark shares valuable insight into the four pillars that make up personal resilience, as well as key practices that you can do to foster resilience in your own life.  

KELLY NOTCUTT (KN): How do you define resilience in people?

MARK ORPEN-LYALL (MOL): There are many different definitions of resilience out there. I like to define resilience as this: 

Resilience is a proactive coping process aimed at thriving in adverse conditions, change and opportunities. We do this by fortifying and utilising our four key resilience reservoirs i.e. mental, socio-emotional, physical and spiritual. 

This definition is made up of three components. 

The first component is the proactive part – where we develop skillsets and mindsets that will help us navigate challenges before the situations occur. It’s important to emphasise here that resilience is not just about surviving or bouncing back, but really about thriving despite the challenges.

The second component of the definition is about the kinds of conditions that create stress. In life, we can experience two types of stress: eustress (positive) and distress (negative). For example, positive stress can be experienced when starting a new job – you’re excited about the opportunity but also feel the stress of familiarising yourself to a new work environment and colleagues. While distress can be caused by unwelcome change or adverse conditions.

Lastly, the third component is about how you move from a state of stress to a state of thriving, which is achieved by drawing from the four key resilience reservoirs that I mentioned earlier. I like to use this metaphor of reservoirs as pools of skills and mindsets that you can dip into and you can literally draw from during the course of your life. 

A good example of this is a story from my own life. I used to be an avid cyclist and cycling was my “go-to” way of dealing with stress. When I slipped a disc in my back in 2011 and could no longer cycle, I had to draw from a different reservoir to deal with stress. If physical exercise had been my only method of coping with stress I would have been in serious trouble. But different situations will require us to draw from different reservoirs to get the energy and resilience we need to move forward. 

KN: Early research depicted predispositions to resilience by comparing glass, tin and wood dolls and demonstrating that those with low levels of resilience were fragile and breakable (like glass), those with some core resilience would be dented but not broken by stressors (like tin) whilst those with high levels of resilience would hardly be impacted upon by stressors. What role does nature or genetic predisposition play (as opposed to mindset which is potentially a nurture quality)?  

MOL: I prefer to rather think of us as fluid, it implies flexibility and is one of the most powerful forces known to mankind. In addition, resilience can take up different forms in different situations: steam, ice or as a fluid…each with its own unique advantages. I think we should not just look at nature-nurture, but also free will; one of the most powerful responses we can take in any situation is to choose how we respond to it. 

KN: You define resilience as a proactive strategy that happens (ideally) in anticipation of a stressor or adverse change in life conditions. How might this differ from resilience in the natural world? Do you think the same anticipatory sense to enable proactive responses exists is the natural world (animals and plants) or are they more influenced by genetic predisposition to being resilient? 

MOL: Animals are incredibly adaptive and if you look at mimicry you will see how animals have done this. As humans we have a greater speed at which we can evolve, due to complex communication skills, collaboration and our mental capacities.

KN: What role does mindset play in resilience?

MOL: The way that we see the world determines how we respond to the world. However, so often we don’t interrogate the lenses with which we see the world and frame our perceptions and respond. We simply accept that that’s how the world is. But our mindset does affect how we perceive and respond to the world. So it’s crucial that we take a step back and examine what influences our attitude and mindset. If you want to see real, sustainable behavioural change in your life, you need to be able to see the world – and yourself in it – in a way that lifts you up and not in a way that holds you back. 

KN: In your research you’ve identified four key paradigms that are essential for resilience. Can you tell us a bit more about those four paradigms? 

MOL: The first paradigm is 20/20 Vision, which falls under Spiritual Fitness. 20/20 Vision means that you can see clearly. When people are under stress they can make terrible decisions. In these circumstances, we need tools or resources that we can regularly use to help us make good quality decisions on a consistent basis. 

One such tool is writing a mission statement or knowing your life’s purpose. This is crucial because it becomes your north star, a guide that you can use to navigate towards your desired goals throughout your life. 

Other ways of gaining 20/20 vision include having coaches or mentors in your life, reading, exposing yourself to people who think differently from you, meditation and mindfulness, or being immersed in nature. They are all brilliant ways of gaining a fresh perspective. 

The second paradigm is ‘Think Like A Kid’, which falls under mental fitness. This means encouraging ourselves to maintain the same kind of  curiosity and awe in the world that we see in children. 

Children are learning machines. They have fun and when they make a mistake, they learn, pick themselves up and try again. If you think of the challenges that we face with advancing technology like robotics and AI, it is evident that without  curiosity you are going to be left behind, negatively impacting your resilience. We need to be able to invoke that curiosity and awe in ourselves and constantly seek and learn from new experiences and skills.  

The third paradigm, under social-emotional fitness, is called ‘Conquering the Monkey’ and it specifically applies to relationships. The key concept here is forgiveness, both of others and of self. 

The final and fourth paradigm, under physical fitness, is ‘Turbo Boosters’. These look at the health triad – exercise, nutrition and sleep. This is really about vitality – how do we nurture the core energy in ourselves so that we can be vibrant and tackle the challenges that come with living in a rapidly changing world. For example, many people are sleep-deprived, reducing energy and vitality. If we don’t have energy, it’s very difficult to perceive things accurately or make the changes that a lot of us aspire to make. 

KN: In your research, you mention that we have limited time and energy and that we should avoid things that drain these resources. What advice would you give for people feeling overwhelmed by the excessive amount of mundane work they feel that they have to do?

MOL: I think it’s important to schedule both the have to’s, the mundane work, with the want to’s, the things that give you energy, so making sure that during the course of the day, you’re investing a bit of energy into something that you really enjoy. 

I would also ask, “How do you play to your strengths?” We’ve all got development areas that we have to work on, but at the same time, if you never play to your strengths, it becomes a very disengaging environment. People who play to their strengths have a much lower risk of burnout. I’d recommend taking a moment to think about what your strengths are and how you can play to those each day. 

Another tip would be to tackle the tasks you really don’t enjoy first thing in the morning when you’ve got the most energy. Discipline is an important part of mastering this. There’s a saying that goes, “You are going to experience the pain of regret or you’re going to experience the pain of discipline. Either way, you’ve got to make a choice”.

KN: What are your favourite tools for developing resilience or shifting mindsets to ones that are more sustainable?

MOL: Self-awareness is a powerful practice – I would encourage people to take an honest audit of their lives and ask themselves candid questions about the four fitness areas – spiritual, mental, social-emotional and physical. 

Then, the ability to reframe a situation is a powerful tool for developing resilience. To look at a challenging situation objectively and ask, “What can I learn from this situation?”, “Are there mindsets that I have developed as a result of past experiences that are  limiting me or helping me now?”, “What do I need to leave behind and what can I leverage off of and take forward?”.  

I like to do this exercise using a life graph, where you reflect on your whole life and plot the positives and negatives, taking key moments and distilling the learnings from each experience. It’s a very powerful exercise because you realise just how resilient you are. People have the most amazing life stories and all of us have been through some very incredible things.

If I had to pick one of the most important tools it would be figuring out what your life’s mission and purpose. Writing a personal mission statement is a powerful exercise because it gives you direction, your reason to get out of bed in the morning. With an understanding of your life’s purpose and mission, you can be more conscious about your choices, more focused with your energy and more able to reach your goals. 

Mindfulness and exercise are fantastic tools for building resilience and a positive mindset too.  You really want to take a multifaceted approach to developing your resilience. You can’t leverage off just one activity or tool. By developing resilience in each of the four domains, you’ll be better able to navigate the complexity of life and what it’s going to throw at you. 


We hope you enjoyed this edition of Leadership Lab. We’d love to hear from you – how do you foster resilience in your life? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.