Practicing Resilient Leadership with Dr. Ellen Choi

New research from organizational psychologist, Dr. Ellen Choi, and how Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke models her advice.

Framework curated by Luke DeCoste, Entrepreneur-in-Residence and MindFrame Connect Advisor

A storm of entrepreneurial adversity has the world’s most successful founders grasping for resilient leadership right now.

In this video we hear about new research on the topic from Dr. Ellen Choi and her colleagues that gives us insight into how to practice resilient leadership.

To help understand their findings, we’ll show how Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke is using resilient leadership in his response to current economic headwinds.

Dr. Choi’s Research on Resilient Leadership:

Dr. Choi is an organizational psychologist who studies how mindfulness influences how we think, feel, and act at work. Using new research that she and her colleagues compiled, Dr. Choi describes resilient leadership, and how you build it in this video.

“It’s important to think about leader resilience and resilient leadership in two buckets,” says Choi. First, there is being a resilient leader, and the “things that happen within a person that makes them a resilient leader.” Second, there is resilient leadership - “aspects of how you execute your leadership so you can meet your goals” in times of adversity.

She wants us to know that they’re related because a leader’s individual resilience will determine how influential the leader will be in times of adversity.

To help put these ideas into practice, we’ll explore how the actions of one of Canada’s most accomplished founders aligns with Dr. Choi’s framework for resilient leadership the need to be a resilient leader.

Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke

With over $4B in revenue in 2021, Shopify is one of Canada’s most successful tech unicorns. As CEO, Tobias Lütke has delivered incredible value to shareholders, employees, and over 1.7M companies running on its platform.

Having started his company soon after the 2008 financial recession Lütke learned early the importance of resilient leadership. He put these skills to use again as the company faces slowed e-commerce after the pandemic. As we’ll summarize here, Lütke’s recent letter announcing these layoffs highlighted the resilient leadership that Dr. Choi describes.

Resilient Leadership in Practice

Dr. Choi argues that “The capacity to be a resilient leader is learned by being attuned to your followers and your environment because the more attuned you are to the people you are leading, the more quickly you can adapt, respond, and pivot in a way that is meaningful to them, and to the goals that you’re trying to achieve in the environment that you’re in.”

As part of the aforementioned study, Choi and her colleagues asked 34 Canadian leaders what resilient leadership meant to them. As she tells us, “What stood out was the idea of the ‘Filter’, where you are regulating your internal experience - your thoughts, feelings, needs, desires, and goals.”

These leaders, are “very intentionally projecting outward a message that either instills confidence when people are shaky and uncertain, or offers tactics and strategies when people need to be steadied, and is so attuned with the needs of the people and environment in order to match what is called for from the leader in that time.”

The Filter for resilient leadership has five parts outlined on the right side of Figure 1 below, divided into affective, and cognitive components.

Figure 1 - Dr. Choi et. al. research on Resilient Leadership

Lütke touches on all five elements in his recent message regarding the layoffs.

Affective Filter Tactics

Here’s how he used elements of the Filter related to affect or emotion:

Community Building. Lütke aims to reinforce community in the first paragraph “Being on a journey, surrounded by great teammates, doing difficult things is what it's all about.”

Transparent Struggle - He is then open about the challenges. “All this makes this email so much harder to write: the next part of the journey will involve fewer teammates than we have picked up along the way.”

Interpersonal Relations - Even as he lets people go, Lütke needs to be fostering relationships through his message. He does this with trust and empathy, elements identified in Choi and her colleague’s research. Lütke builds that trust through clear communication and taking responsibility, “Ultimately, placing this bet was my call to make and I got this wrong. Now, we have to adjust. As a consequence, we have to say goodbye to some of you today and I’m deeply sorry for that.”  

As the employees being cut process this information, he offers empathy when he writes “For a company like ours this news will be difficult to digest. It will be even harder for those leaving today”. These layoffs, he knows, will impact many…”it will be hard for everyone.”

Cognitive Filter Tactics

The next two parts of the Filter are more cognitive, related to thoughts. Again, the message put out by Shopify clearly delivers on these fronts.

Ascribing Meaning
In order to bring purpose, Lütke comes back to a common message of his around prioritizing and empowering entrepreneurs. “We again have a clear objective in these challenging macro-economic times, and we will use everything we’ve got to help (entrepreneurs) succeed and come out stronger.”

Solution Orientation
In the face of adversity, resilient leadership is focused on solutions. Lütke’s message is all about the solution - we’re going to have to cut 10% of the team. ”This time we grow into something more focused, more driven, and more singular in mission.” But he also gives solutions to those who are being let go, including generous severance packages, extended health benefits, and perks far beyond industry norms.

Resilient Leader
We can’t just show up with resilient leadership however, unless we’ve invested in being resilient leaders, argues Choi. She says “The ability to be a resilient leader depends on how much gas you have in your own personal leader resilience tank. You have to be willing to put gas in it and that means the reverence for self-care and personal coping has to be a priority.”

Through his time as an entrepreneur, Lütke has learned to prioritize that investment.  After initially trying to operate on little sleep, he now proclaims his need for 8 hours of rest. Time with family is another important contributor to his gas tank – and he works to be home with his family every evening by 5:30.  He’s also an advocate for healthy eating, and even listens to motivational music.

Learning what you need to be resilient requires intentional cultivation of self-awareness, argues Dr. Choi. She says, “the awareness of how much gas is in your tank can be enhanced through practices like mindfulness and meditation.” She continues, “finding a point within yourself and connecting to your own introspective experience has been shown in so many different fields of study to be incredibly efficient in restoring the resources that you need to regulate your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, particularly in times that are stressful and chaotic.”

Lütke has also been investing in his self-awareness, talking publicly about his meditation practice, the benefits of therapy, and the value Shopify gets by providing coaches for their leaders.


Building resilience takes personal commitment, and Dr. Choi’s reminds us of the importance of finding practices that works for us. She hopes this “bolsters you through the challenging times that you are facing, so you can show up in a way that is meaningful and compassionate to others in order to meet the goals that you’re all trying to achieve”.

To find out more about how to build your resilience, watch Dr. Choi’s video, and follow along for more content and training from MindFrame Connect.

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