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What Is This Thing Called Resilience?

It is a hot buzzword, but often clouded in mystery. Here’s what executives need to know.

Not long ago, I was at the White House visiting a friend who works on climate change issues. We were talking about her work when I happened to mention the word resilience. She groaned—the word seemed to have become simultaneously ubiquitous and meaningless in both policy circles and general discourse, she said, which is why she no longer uses it. It’s not that the concept of resilience isn’t important anymore, she added, but almost no one is clear on what the term actually means.

Resilience may indeed be the catchword of the year. The Rockefeller Foundation has this year begun funding Chief Resilience Officers in 100 cities around the world as part of its 100 Resilient Cities program, part of the foundation’s effort to make resilience one of its pillars in its second 100 years. Its director, Judith Rodin, has a new book, The Resilience Dividend, out on the subject this month (full disclosure: I’m quoted in it)—it’s the latest in a series of attempts to promote resilience. These efforts are not, however, a matter of jumping on the buzzword bandwagon: With severe weather events on the rise, three-digit daily stock market swings barely raising an eyebrow, ISIS unleashing chaos in the Middle East (and potentially elsewhere), a massive Ebola outbreak in Africa refusing to be contained, and social unrest boiling over from Brazil to Ukraine to Hong Kong to Mexico, the ability to survive and thrive despite significant disruption—the essence of resilience—is the new core competency for globalized enterprises.

Resilience, in its simplest form, is often thought of as the ability to bounce back. This is misguided as there is actually no “back” to bounce to. Time moves ahead and so do we. It’s more accurate to think of resilience as the ability to bounce forward. Resilient individuals, organizations, cities, nations, and species survive, learn, adapt, and grow stronger as a result. If GM makes it through its current difficulties, it will not be because it goes back to the way things used to be.

It’s more accurate to think of resilience as the ability to bounce forward.


It’s important to note the distinction between robustness (the ability to withstand disruption) and resilience (the ability to recover). They are complementary: Massive efforts to thwart cyber attacks are meant to build more robust systems; the ability to restore operations, public confidence, and reputation in the aftermath of a breach demonstrates resilience (or lack thereof).

There are three broad areas of scholarly inquiry on resilience. One focuses on people: the psychological school. A second looks at critical infrastructure: call it the engineering school. The third looks at the evolution of natural ecosystems: the environmental school. Although each of these is a distinct discipline generally pursued separately, they are ultimately interdependent—organizations need people, infrastructure, and system processes to function amid turbulence.

In order to foster the capacity to bounce forward, executives should integrate insights from each of these areas. Start with your personal resilience and that of your people. Several years ago, Warren Bennis and Bob Thomas wrote Geeks and Geezers, comparing young and old leaders, and found that what these people had in common was coming through a significant “crucible” experience—from the death of a parent to a daunting work posting—that tested them to their core. They survived and grew because of it. Reflect on yours. When have you made it through difficulty that has shown you that you can persevere?

The first evidence of resilience is belief in a positive future. The sooner you can reassure yourself and those around you that you can get through a crisis, no matter how daunting it is, the faster you will trigger resilience. One of my former subordinates had a great way of doing this: When something would go wrong and people would begin to panic, she would ask, “Is anyone bleeding from the head? If the answer is ‘no,’ we can handle it. If the answer is ‘yes,’ I know who to call, and they can handle it.” A bit dramatic? Perhaps. But it worked.

When it comes to infrastructure, a failure can quickly lead to apportioning blame and obsessing over the point of failure. To foster resilience, draw instead on the things that still work. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, for example, hospital IT systems were overwhelmed by the volume of incoming patients. But instead of arguing over the technology lapse, physicians quickly reverted to the battlefield technique of marking the patients’ bodies for identification: male, beard, right arm fracture, shrapnel left thigh. All of the injured evacuated from the scene that day survived. The recovery phase is the time for a detailed analysis of the infrastructure collapse and who fault it might be, after the response is complete.

Finally, when it comes to systems and processes, we should learn from nature to focus on function rather than form. In order to remain functioning as a viable business entity, an organization may need to radically reinvent its form, just as organisms and ecosystems have done over millions of years. IBM, for example, moved from products to services, and it’s now moving from traditional services to the cloud. Becoming too wedded to an outdated form inhibits resilience and the ability to adapt to changed circumstances.

Resilience is a natural capacity. We can cultivate its growth by becoming more in touch with ourselves and more aware of the world around us, particularly relationships and interdependencies. We can remove impediments by constructing our organizations to be responsive and agile in the face of rapidly shifting conditions. The world is getting more, not less, turbulent—our resilience is likely to be tested again and again.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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