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4D Leadership

4D Leadership – Competitive Advantage Through Vertical Leadership Development

Twenty years ago the accumulation of skills, knowledge and experience (‘horizontal development’) was sufficient for business success. Today, it’s not. 4D Leadership – Competitive Advantage Through Vertical Leadership Development, offers a new approach of ‘vertical development’.

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What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

This is an old adage but is it really true? Well yes and no. On the yes side for example, in every doctors’ surgery all over the UK, parents will be comforting their babies after a routine vaccination. It’s a momentary upset for a potential lifetime of protection. In a baby’s body, a small amount of the disease triggers the production of antibodies that can ultimately protect that baby from the full force of the disease as he or she grows up.

The analogy of the vaccine can be applied to many areas of our life. We need the challenge of an unwanted disease or a negative experience to inoculate us against future challenges. This can really help us grow and develop our ‘immunity’, making us stronger.

But has our instinct to protect our children caused us to become over-protective? Do we molly coddle our children so much these days that they actually face very little in the way of negative experience or challenge?

To be resilient a system needs to be challenged, at least to a healthy degree. A little bit of stress is good for us. This insight has been seen time and again in multiple research fields. More than a century ago, Yerkes & Dodson[1] showed that applying stress (in the form of heating up the wire cage) to mice that were required to perform a task increased the performance up to a point, but too much stress (heat) caused the performance of the mice to drop off. The bell-shaped curve of performance for those ‘dancing mice’ shows that we need some pressure in the system to perform. This is true of mice and men (and women). Very often the most successful business leaders have had early life challenges that they have had to overcome. Those challenges have made them tough and resilient. 

Performance may require challenge and stimulation, but when does more pressure enhance resilience and when can it impair performance. How much is too much? When do we tip onto the ‘no’ side of the curve when what doesn’t kill us is actually impairing our ability? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. How much pressure your ‘system’ can handle is very particular to the individual. It is not about an absolute number of tasks you have to complete, it is about your capability to cope with those tasks. The question you have to answer is: How much is too much for you?

Pressure and the associated experience of failure are critical elements of development. They are our vaccine. If we make everything too easy, if no one fails – consider the sports day when all the children are told they are winners – then we can become immobilised by the fear of failure. Children should be taught to embrace failure. Anyone who has not learnt how to deal with failure will struggle to get on in life. Importantly, they will lack ‘bounce-back ability’ or resilience.

A generation of children growing up without the experience of failure could present significant challenges for leaders in the future. With fewer and fewer people who have experienced failure and built resilience, we are likely to see fewer leaders who are willing to take on the risks and pressures of a place at the top table. To avoid this scenario, our children need a little bit of what they may not like (a dose of pressure and the experience of failure) to build resilience and higher levels of performance in the future.

 [1] Yerkes RM, Dodson JD. The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. J.Comp.Neurol.Psychol. 1908;18:459–482.

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Dr Alan Watkins

Alan is recognised as an international expert on leadership and human performance. He has a broad mix of commercial, academic, scientific and technological abilities.


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