THE BLOG
11/22/2013 02:14 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Coral Reefs and Borneo: Can Resilience Theory Help Leaders During These Turbulent Times?

How able is your organization to adapt and thrive when surprised or disrupted by internal or external events? Is your leadership team able to mobilize when new patterns or trends emerge? How does your organization balance established hierarchies and informal improvisation and innovation?

Our boards appoint us believing we have what it takes to be forward-looking and visionary while sustaining the core values, mission and culture of our organizations. Our internal community members expect us to provide the resources to sustain current operations and to innovate. We hear from economists that the new normal presents a depressed economy that is episodically elevated by bubbles (tech, real estate, etc.).

The challenges are plentiful, for sure, but they are often compounded by organizations unable to easily navigate through difficult times. We turn to our training and experiences to make sense of our circumstances. The leadership and organizational behavior literature churns along and we do our best to keep abreast of current thinking. The practical use of doing so is reflection. Reflecting on our organization, ourselves, and external circumstances.

Resilience, a fairly recent thread in organizational and leadership literature, is well presented in Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back by Zolli and Healy. It can be read in a day and promotes reflection on the vitality of one's organization and one's own leadership attributes.

The authors' definition of resilience: "The capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances." The book spends considerable time in the natural world, including an Australian coral reef and Borneo, the primary habitat of orangutans. Drawing a line from the natural to the social sciences, the writing makes the case that those attributes that contribute to healthy environmental ecosystems can also be developed and sustained in human organizational systems.

One of the most frustrating parts of leadership can be accepting how contingent leadership can be, as it depends so much on a leader's ability to understand what leadership attributes, principles or frameworks to apply as circumstances change. All leaders misinterpret some situation at a certain point in their life, whether it is their business, family, community or their own personal well-being. Something they did in a previous experience that proved to be wildly successful fails miserably in a different time or context. Leadership theories lead you to wide spectrum of findings, but, in the end, they default to contingency theory where what one does "depends" on the circumstances. Resilience theory addresses this through the emphasis of organizational attributes that enable leadership to best ascertain the challenges and determine innovations that move the organization forward.

Zolli and Healy invite us to consider our leadership journey as a trek across a range of mountains. While we naturally think of conquering each peak as an achievement, we come to learn that the greater challenge may be the new terrains presented by the valleys between the peaks. We have come to call these valleys the new normal. There will always be a new normal, right? So how do our organization prepare for surprises and disruptions?

That's what makes this conceptual framework so attractive. We need tight feedback loops to know what is happening real-time and we need to preserve our adaptive capacities so we can make the changes needed to advance the organization. Just as parts of the natural world can sense change and adapt to it, we have the ability to sustain healthy organizations through the intentional cultivation of feedback and change development. The authors also show the intersection of humans in the natural world when human behavior can help strengthen natural ecosystems. Then they present cases studies where similar approaches have strengthened human organizations.

The authors also discuss the need for "translational" leaders. These are leaders who respect established hierarchies and systems, have informal authority and cultural standing because of their credibility, and know how to make new things happen. I call these leaders tribal leaders, those in our organization who, by virtue of their tenure and accomplishments, can lead change because they make sense of chaotic or fast-changing environments for their peers.

Another attribute of a resilient community is its embracing of adhocracy, which stresses the empowerment of leaders who support informal team roles, a limited focus on standard operating procedures, deep improvisation, the empowerment of specialized teams and an intolerance of bureaucracies. This may be the most difficult environment to create because most of us crave routine and rules to govern our work. What emerges here is the realization that the continual development of a thriving organization depends on the institution placing a value on innovation and improvisation. These two parts of an organization's personality complement each other as they provide the feedback and adaptive elements needed as it makes its way through the valley and conquer the next peak.

Like many before them, the authors promote hardiness as a central attribute of thriving organizations, where individuals have:

- A belief that one can find a meaningful purpose in life
- A belief that one can influence the outcome of events
- A belief that positive and negative experiences will lead to learning
- Shared values and beliefs
- Trust and cooperation with others.

Given the leadership demands in many sectors, including higher education, how does leadership make time to cultivate and sustain these attributes when we are dealing with external factors (economy, governmental oversight, hyper-communication, shifting demographics)? Together these can overwhelm many seasoned leaders, but I think the greater challenge may be in the workforce. Recent well-being and engagement studies by Gallup indicate that less than 30% of the U.S. workforce is actively engaged in their work, leaving the majority to be disengaged or actively disengaged.

Would it be easy to blame the millennial generation, the mobility of the workforce, social media, economic unrest, etc., for these findings and, in turn, the difficulties we face in leadership? Yes, but that's not the question, this is: With all the resources at hand, how do we intentionally support an organization that can mobilize when needed? Resilience theory reinforces what we intuitively know about leadership and organization theory: It requires reflection, research, and experimentation, all things that are hard to place a monetary value on but provide for robust organizations dedicated to the vitality of the enterprise.

I am grateful to receive readers' comments and insights at mbrophy@marymountcalifornia.edu.