Judith Rodin’s Required Reading
The president of the Rockefeller Foundation discusses the best books for understanding and nurturing organizational resilience.
In August 2005, a few months after Judith Rodin was named the first female president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast. In the days, months, and years that followed, the critical importance of resilience — the ability to prepare for systemic disruptions, survive them, and transform them into opportunities for growth — became evident.
Since then, Rodin, an academic by training and a nonprofit leader by profession, has adopted the concept of resilience as a core focus of the Rockefeller Foundation. She is deploying the philanthropic organization’s US$4.2 billion in assets to promote and develop the resilience of cities, organizations, and communities. A prolific writer with 15 books to her credit, Rodin also wrote a book on the topic to help spread the word, The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong (PublicAffairs, 2014).
Prior to joining the Rockefeller Foundation, Rodin was president of the University of Pennsylvania. The first woman to head an Ivy League school, she led the university for a decade — a period in which research funding doubled and the endowment tripled. Before that, Rodin served as provost and a named professor at Yale, where she conducted pioneering research in behavioral medicine and health psychology.
Since disruption is an issue that applies to business as much as society at large, I asked Rodin to share the books that have most influenced her thinking on the subject, ones that she thinks business leaders should read to understand and nurture the resilience of their organizations. She responded with the following three titles.
The Resilient Enterprise: Overcoming Vulnerability for Competitive Advantage, by Yossi Sheffi (MIT Press, 2005). “Professor Sheffi highlights the fact that the businesses that do best after an unforeseeable disaster are the ones that make the right decisions before a crisis ever strikes. He explores how companies can build, and bolster, their resilience by making their supply chains more flexible, baking critical redundancies into their organizational design and collaborating more closely with partners who can help reinforce their safety, come what may. The book includes instructive stories from organizations as diverse as Southwest Airlines, Zara, Johnson & Johnson, and the U.S. Navy.”
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, by Sheri Fink (Crown, 2013). “I’m a huge fan of Fink’s stark and comprehensive story of how things came apart at one hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The Rockefeller Foundation was invited into New Orleans after the storm to help the city rebuild in a unified way, and while I saw the aftermath firsthand, this prize-winning journalistic account of the real-time decision making needed under such dire circumstances within a single institution is both harrowing and humbling. The book is incredibly well-researched, revealing the tangle of issues — race, class, geography, and an inescapable history — that contributed to the horror in New Orleans. Fink artfully illustrates just how ill-prepared New Orleans’s Memorial Medical Center — and, by extension, the city’s entire civic machinery — was for a crisis of this magnitude. The most important lesson for leaders in a world where crisis is the new normal: Despite the crisis plans Memorial had in place, management’s lack of situational awareness crippled its response.”
Despite the crisis plans the New Orleans hospital had in place, management’s lack of situational awareness crippled its response.
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2009). “This book provides a vivid and inspiring portrait of several communities brought together by the crucible of disaster: San Francisco after the earthquake and fires of 1906; the 1917 maritime disaster in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Mexico City after its 1985 earthquake; and the more recent crises of 9/11 and Katrina. Solnit’s wonderful, paradigm-shifting observation is that, somehow, crisis brought out the best in these communities, individually and collectively. She describes the emotion brought on by tragedy as ‘graver than happiness but deeply positive,’ lending confirmation to the oft-referenced idea that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. This wide-ranging investigation of human nature and how we manage to rise to the most unthinkable occasions offers incredible insight into the ways in which people and communities — and, one imagines, corporations, too — can build back stronger than ever.”