The Three Secrets of Resilient Leadership

Geoff Urton
7 min readDec 12, 2022


What do Lady Gaga, ancient architecture and a gold-medallist soccer goalie have to tell us about thriving through adversity?

Hagia Sophia is the iconic cultural monument of Istanbul, Turkey. Completed in the year 537, it was the world’s largest cathedral for a millennium. From the floor, you gaze up 182 feet to the ceiling of its dome, nearly the height of the Golden Gate Bridge. Sitting adjacent to the North Anatolian fault, this resilient structure has withstood 1,500 years of earthquakes, some of which decimated the buildings of the surrounding city. And yet it stands.

Credit: Sami Aksu

Wanting to create a magnificent place of worship, Roman Emperor Justinian summoned two top minds — a mathematician and engineer — to design and build a structure of impossible vastness. He envisioned a heavenly dome presiding above a great rectangular hall, combining traditional Roman and Christian places of worship. And this was the problem laid before the architects, because to place a circular dome upon a rectangular base had never been done. Circular domes covered circular spaces, like Rome’s Pantheon. Hagia Sophia’s designers were called to invent something new, and as a result, Hagia Sophia changed the history of architecture.

Like Hagia Sophia, the concept of resilience is both daunting and mystifying. We want to get inside to understand it — to investigate what makes it up and how it works. I am going to empower your ability to lead purpose-driven people for resilience, through demystifying this topic and providing actionable guidance. So let’s go on a tour of resilience together. We will approach it from a few vantages. We’ll deconstruct the term, and build it back up, so we can discover exactly what it takes to master resilient leadership.


Reflect for a moment on the image that first comes to mind when hearing the word resilience. I see a man in a trench coat brandishing a black umbrella like a shield against an onslaught of horizontal rain. It’s the image of a steadfast bracing for impact — a determination not to give in. Determination may well be an essential factor in one’s ability to succeed through adversity. However, determination alone can prove brittle in the long run. How long might it take before the umbrella’s material yields to the storm’s assault, or for the hands gripping its handle to fatigue?

Despite the role of grit in overcoming challenge, resilience is not synonymous with toughness. The term originates from the Latin resilire, meaning ‘to leap back’, much as a flexible metal returns to its original form after compression. For a person, an organization or a community, resilience is the ability to cope and thrive through adversity.

To understand resilience, we need to talk about adversity. Would you say you and your organization have experienced adversity recently? I imagine this would be hard to deny. At least you can say you are in good company. Even before the pandemic, nearly two thirds of non-profit employees surveyed said “I feel used up at the end of the day,” which is one indicator of burnout, or emotional exhaustion. Almost every one of those employees (89%) said they were unlikely to stay at their job. This is the nature of work in the caring and social change professions. I offer that for a group of people who come to work for an organization because of their concern about the suffering of others to experience that suffering every day is inherently adverse. They are swimming in adversity.

Let’s explore that further. To understand adversity, we need to talk first about intention. This is because adversity is thwarted intention. No intention, no adversity. And whether or not we’re conscious of it, we always have an intention behind our actions. Stretching out in a hammock, you even have an intention, don’t you? To relax. And so what is the mosquito buzzing in your ear? It’s adversity! Without intention, we have no context for adversity, nor for resilience. Let’s talk about the three key elements necessary for resilience.


“My intention is to acknowledge our past, be healing for our present, and passionate for a future where we work together lovingly.”

These were the words shared by performance artist Lady Gaga in a tweet at 7:52am on January 20th, 2021, just hours before she sang the national anthem at the United States Presidential Inauguration. She went to say “I will sing to the hearts of all people who live on this land.” And by my estimate, she delivered. This is intention.

Intention is the primary element necessary for resilience. And to evoke it, you can ask yourself: What is this really for?


Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe is now famous for her role in helping clinch her country’s first gold medal in soccer at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Stephanie garnered attention not only for her performance in the game’s final shootout, but for the Cheshire cat grin she wore throughout. Was this psychological brinkmanship aimed at destabilising her opponents as they teed up their shot? Perhaps. But it was also a purely authentic joy spilling out for all to see. Here was Stephanie, on a global stage with all eyes on her, and in her own words, she “was in her happy place.” Just weeks before, though, Stephanie was in excruciating pain from a chest injury she suffered through a collision she caused when leaving her net to challenge a Japanese opponent during their opening match of the Games. Having committed a penalty, she returned to the net to defend against the penalty shot awarded saying “I knew this was my fault”. After making a stunning diving save, her injury forced her to leave the match.

What most of us didn’t know, and which Stephanie shared about later, was what she endured in the time between that first and last game. In the days that followed the Japan match, Labbe was in and out of hospital, as she was treated and reassessed repeatedly to determine whether she was fit to continue play. Over that period, she missed the next match, returning to the pitch in time for the squad’s final pool game and the elimination rounds to follow. This commitment to seeing her team through in spite of injury was a show of extraordinary determination on Stephanie’s part. However, what may have been the harder part, Labbe revealed later. In the days leading up to the final match, Labbe was so stimulated, she had difficulty regulating her emotions, not even able to attend breakfast with her team. She spent those days almost entirely in her room trying to meditate to prepare herself mentally for the Gold medal match. Stephanie faced the pain of her injury and the discomfort of her emotions. I’d wager the determination it took for her to manage the latter experience was the harder. To evoke your resilience through challenge, you can ask yourself: What am I committed to no matter what?


Let’s return to Hagia Sophia. Justinian’s architects were tasked with constructing the impossible — a cathedral with an enormous dome perched upon a vast rectangular atrium (add size of both). They came up with a series of innovations that transformed the possibility of architecture.

First, they placed the dome upon four arches. While this seems like an absurd solution, much like trying to balance a teacup upside-down on four beer coasters (and I know someone reading has tried this), it proved to be part of the brilliance of their design. They then added two semicircular domes to adorn the remaining rectangular footprint.

Second, they invented new building materials. They created a new type of plaster to form the dome, which was molded to be incredibly thin. This dome is only one brick thick at its thinnest point. They baked the bricks that formed the arches at a different temperature, making the final product slightly porous and therefore lighter, allowing them to achieve the height necessary.

And perhaps most importantly they left window openings that surrounded the base of the dome, after observing that these were the stress points where the structure would want to crack naturally.

These design elements would ultimately prove to be the secret to Hagia Sophia’s durability over one and a half millennia. Engineers have studied the structure and discovered that during an earthquake, it flexes, as energy transfers evenly across the dome and down the arches. This contrasts with the main form of architecture at the time which was to build with the enormous stone blocks to create the heaviest possible structure. The brilliance of Hagia Sophia is the spaces its architects left open, which allow for its flexibility.

To adapt to what’s happening around you, you can ask yourself: Where can I flex with my environment?

In sum, resilience allows us to fulfil our intention through adversity, using both determination and flexibility. This takes a dance of sustaining our commitment to what really matters to us, while surrendering our attachments to how we think it needs to go. With the same determination it took from Hagia Sophia’s creators, leaders can inspire contributions from their dedicated people towards our collective intention (see more on this leadership style). And with the flexibility of a learning organization you can sustain those commitments over time as your people and your organization adapt and grow together to create the world you want to see.



Geoff Urton

Geoff Urton (he/him/his) writes about leadership and personal fulfillment from unceded Songhees territories in Victoria, BC.