Resilience is about coping with change. Faced with a new set of circumstances – whether brought about by a sudden shock or a prolonged stress – people can modify their behaviour in order to survive and thrive.
Resilience is about not just bouncing back but also bouncing forward on the assumption that there will be no return to the status quo ante. As a result, change may appear threatening; but understanding the nature of that fear can help people rise above the situation and channel their energies for the future. In other words, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
The fear of the new or unknown can be intense, especially if the change is close and personal. Loss of health or employment, for example, can be understandable reasons for worry and maybe inertia. There is a longing for the familiar which can provide succour to voices, whether on the right or left, claiming to be able to undo or halt that change.
Politicians of all colours tend to play on these sentiments and appeal to traditional, conservative remedies. They often cast others in that cloak of fear brought about by change, and demonise their opponents for maximum effect. A resort to tribalism and factionalism can fuel divisions, and we risk losing mutually accepted sources of mediation by retreating into our bubbles of prejudice, reinforced by social media.
What is more, the past often appears sunlit and reassuring, perhaps more so the further it retreats. Nostalgia usually provides a comfort blanket. However, reliance on the past will not help to manage the future, particularly when it is volatile and ambiguous.
As the journalist Matthew Syed says, ‘We are adrift in a sea of complexity using different compasses and without agreed sources of navigational authority’. These sources will not materialise while the liberty craved by the ‘me’ culture of consumerism and individualism takes precedence over sustenance of the ‘us’ culture of collectivism and cohesiveness – we’re all in this together.
To counter the negative, there are positive actions that point to brighter outcomes. Technology can offer new ways of working without heavy carbon footprints; companies are embedding greater social and stakeholder value, with some prepaying suppliers; and better public-private collaboration has been on show over the pandemic in areas like the rapid manufacture of ventilators. They all help to make tomorrow better than today, and build a more resilient future. In fact, global developmental goals usually show we are better placed than our forbearers.
Importantly, resilience relies on having the trust of those around us. Trust is vital if we are to come together as organisations and communities. This does not mean agreeing on all levels – the ‘dignity of difference’ to which the recently deceased, former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs referred. Rather, it demands the creation from the bottom up of organisations and communities that have common interests and shared (public) values. This is where social bonds are strongest. Communities with strong social capital have proved to recover from disasters the fastest. Organised volunteering is one way to help this.
For individuals and groups to cope with change, and hence become resilient, it is also necessary to have a vision of a bigger, brighter future that offers a beacon for motivation and collaboration: the John F Kennedy maxim of ‘what can I do for my country’ is a good north star. Although the pursuit of personal liberties has overtaken group responsibility in the recent past, the mega-challenges of a pandemic and climate disruption are beginning to shift the balance of awareness.
Leaders at all levels have an obligation to light that beacon; it means empowering others to probe horizons and find solutions. As Nelson Mandela wrote: ‘A leader…is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the nimblest go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.’ The best leaders enable and inspire their people to perform their best.
Accordingly, optimism lies with younger people who not only have the most to lose in the longer term but also are more willing to grasp change rather than hanker for a past that they have not experienced, or may even have rejected. They can be creative, flexible and entrepreneurial – they offer hope for the future.
It may take some time for the pendulum to swing back, but the arc is short. Resilience as a concept needs to be embedded early in education and upskilling, along with social responsibility and humility.
Let’s hope the Chinese interpretation of a crisis as both a danger and an opportunity, gives hope to being resilient to the inevitable change ahead in 2021.