An Inner Well of Resilience

Ewan Aitken, Chief Executive of Edinburgh Cyrenians lets us in on his tips for making decisions under pressure and how he has developed his leadership resilience...

“The best decisions you will take will be the ones you have time to think about; the most important one will be the ones that you have to take instantly."

The economist, J.K Galbraith wrote this advice to J.F Kennedy on his election as president. As a former politician I know how true that is. How many political careers have been destroyed by an unwise off-the-cuff remark or an ill-judged instant response to a crisis or a question?

The same is true for leadership in organisations. We may not be elected, but our ability to lead well is built on the quality of the relationships we have with our colleagues, not just those close to us but right across the organisation. And those relationships are grounded in trust and a sense of shared common values, which can risk being lost and shattered in an instant by an unwise word or an ill-judged response to a difficult moment.

A Learning Journey

Ewan AitkenWhile I’ve had the privilege of being in many leadership roles, I'd never been a CEO ‘til I joined Edinburgh Cyrenians. I knew I needed an opportunity to explore what it would take to translate my leadership experiences into the life and working of a chief executive. I needed a space to learn and develop confidence for those moments where, in an instant, my leadership could be made or broken. It wasn’t until I began on the Leading Edge programme that I discovered why that would be so important.

The programme was an opportunity to explore different leadership styles. It helped me to develop my strategic thinking and how to deal with crunchy conversations, discover what emotional intelligence really means and learn to make a plan an actual living tool, not just a shelf filler.

Most importantly, it encouraged me to value something we all need to action as effective leaders, something I didn't fully recognise as a politician…

Reflective Practice

Take the time to reflect. Take the time to be still. Take the time to build that inner well of resilience, so those moments of instant decision don’t revert you to the “fight, flight or freeze” of your neural cortex (it’s clearly not the right place to be for those moments). Rather, use these instances to draw on your instincts and experience to respond. You can now trust your gut decision-making because you took the time to understand what formed and shaped it.

To be a chief executive with values-based leadership, you need to prepare for those most important decisions you’ll have to make instantly. So be still, regularly and deliberately, emptying your mind to create space to develop your resilience: the very foundation of all leadership, whatever your job title may be.



The Leading Edge programme is a transformational leadership programme developed by ACOSVO and Social Enterprise Academy. Designed to build your leadership skills in line with the unique issues and challenges facing chief executives in the third sector, the Leading Edge programme supports you as you develop your abilities and confidence in your leadership and deal with a range of staff, client and stakeholder expectations. Starting September 2015 | Edinburgh | Led by Joette Thomas.