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Resilience: A Hot Topic This Year

February 4, 2013

The word "resilience" is popping up all over these days. Perhaps it's the aftermath of the recession or Hurricane Sandy and other natural disasters, or maybe as Jorn Madslien of BBC News suggests, "Nobody talks about 'resilience' when all is well." [BBC News, January 20, 2013]

Examples: There's a new book by futurist Andrew Zolli and playwright Ann Marie Healy entitled, Resilience – Why Things Bounce Back. The latest World Economic Forum in Davos had as its theme, Resilient Dynamism. And, resilience even showed up in a recent New York Times feature on President Lincoln and his "School of Management" (more on all of these later).

So, what is resilience? defines resilience as "the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc. after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity; and the ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy."

According to Wikipedia, resilience is best understood as a process, not a trait:

  • resilience is a dynamic process whereby individuals exhibit positive behavioral adaptation when they encounter significant adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress…the opportunity and capacity of individuals to navigate their way to psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that may sustain their well-being, and their opportunity and capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided and experienced in culturally meaningful ways.

Mr. Madslien of the BBC defines resilience as "a mixture of determination, ability and hope that everything will be all right in the end."

Nancy Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School, takes a look at President Lincoln and his style of leadership in a recent New York Times article [Lincoln's School, of Management, Sunday, January 27, 2013]. In it, Professor Koehn asserts that Lincoln had an ability to shift gears in hard times without abandoning his larger goals – the preservation of the Union and the prohibition of slavery – and that despite all of his anguish and mental suffering through the long Civil War, it was his resilience that sustained him.

Applying this lesson to the present day, Professor Koehn suggests that:

  • As President Obama embarks on a new term and business leaders struggle to keep pace with a rapidly changing global economy, the lessons of Lincoln seem as fresh as ever. They demonstrate the importance of resilience, forbearance, emotional intelligence, thoughtful listening and the consideration of all sides of an argument.

The recent World Economic Forum on Resilient Dynamism (January 23-27) used the following opening statement to inform its discussions:

  • Today, we live in the most complex, interdependent and interconnected era in history. We are increasingly confronted by major adaptive challenges as well as profound transformational opportunities. This new leadership context requires successful organizations to master strategic agility and to build risk resilience.

With session titles like, Building Cyber Resilience, Bolstering Ocean Resilience, Creative Resilience, Resilience in Diversity, Global Supply Chain Resilience and Enterprise Resilience, built into a four-day meeting with topics such as Catastrophic Risks in the 21st Century, The Evolving Role of Business, Designing Smart Cities, Leading Through Adversity and Triggering Sustainable Choices, leaders from around the world had the opportunity to discuss the inherent risks and opportunities presented in today's complex environment.

Just one description from a session says it all:

  • How can global, national and industry resilience to catastrophic risks be increased? Dimensions to be discussed: Assessment of national resilience to global risks; role and impact of hyper-connectivity; strategies to prevent systemic failures.

For those of us who were not lucky enough to attend the World Economic Forum, all of these sessions were webcast and they are available for viewing at

Finally, Andrew Zolli, who has been described as "a big picture thinker at the intersection of trends, technology, strategy and innovation," and who describes himself as working "at the intersection of foresight, global innovation, social change and resilience," has co-authored a book (with playwright Ann Marie Healy) entirely devoted to the concept of resilience.

In it, Zolli and Healy assert that resilient organizations do not rely on any single plan for the future, but are agile and responsive: they thrive, rather than merely survive, amidst change. The book -- with its many compelling examples and stories -- attempts to answer the question: How can we build better shock absorbers for ourselves, our organizations, our communities and our planet?

In this thought-provoking book (as well as in a recent Opinion piece in The New York Times [November 2, 2012]) Zolli challenges our modern concepts of sustainability – "an idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet" – and replaces it with resilience – "how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions." According to Zolli, where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

Zolli argues that resilience is "a broad-spectrum agenda that, at one end, seeks to imbue our communities, institutions and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to extreme events and, at the other, centers on bolstering people's psychological and physiological capacity to deal with high-stress circumstances."

Or in more simple terms, "Rolling with the waves instead of trying to stop the ocean."

If you have a question or comment about this blog, please share it by clicking here. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter @tmcclimonCSRNow and comment there.

P.S. Did you know that one of the first scientists to use the term "resilience" was Emily Werner who studied children from a poor Pacific island in the early 1970's. Werner found that two-thirds of children who grew up in this adverse environment exhibited destructive behavior as teenagers, but that one-third did not. She called this latter group, "resilient."


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