This article focuses on the relationship between human and organisational resilience from a leadership perspective in the creation of a culture of resilience.
All leaders are likely to face situations where members of a group, community or organisation experience challenges and uncertainty. However, few leaders are likely to encounter the life and death leadership situations experienced by Ernest Shackleton and his Antarctic polar expedition. Shackleton and his crew from the aptly named ship, Endurance, were trapped aboard their ship by pack ice between February and September in 1915. However, they had to abandon the ship when it was crushed and sank and they were adrift on an ice floe for hundreds of days before reaching land. Notwithstanding enduring harsh conditions, all members of the crew survived and returned to civilisation. Their survival was largely attributed to Shackleton’s leadership behaviours, which inspired the resilience of his stranded crew throughout their harrowing ordeal.
Today, global events expose people to crises and disaster almost on a daily basis. Organisations operate within increasingly complex environments brought about by different external and internal influences, sudden unforeseen events, and global political, economic and social trends. Individually, people face situations that test their personal levels of resilience and as part of a group, such as in the workplace or organisation. While this may present a daunting picture, there is some evidence to suggest that groups, organisations and even communities can learn to develop a culture of resilience – particularly with the right leadership.
In the same way that individuals can learn to develop personal traits of resilience, organisations can also learn to develop a culture of resilience. It is a combination of a set of principles, a process and capabilities, and where leadership plays a significant role.
Effective leaders understand that an organisation needs more than an enduring or recognisable brand for it to be a resilient organisation. Appropriate leadership can inspire group cohesion by acting as a catalyst for shared organisational values, by articulating the vision of the organisation and, importantly, by exhibiting traits and behaviours associated with resilience. They also recognise that uncertainty can undermine or inspire resilience, but this depends on the culture of the organisation and the capability of individuals to choose to be inspired rather than to be uncertain because the strategies, processes and procedures within an organisation guide and lead them in that direction. It can therefore be argued that workplace cultures that build resilience create more productive, effective and safer environments and the organisation itself is likely to survive and thrive rather than flounder.
An organisation with a culture of resilience is built on several characteristics; most notably, leadership, shared values, and flexible and adaptive capabilities. In practice, there is a matrix approach – horizontally as well as vertically (or to put it another way, top-down, bottom-up and even side to side) – where there is a shared identity and where critical knowledge and practices are known and understood. As a result, when faced with adversity, an organisation with a culture of resilience is capable of maintaining and developing itself.
The capacity for resilience is a vital component of authentic leadership development and this is sometimes referred to in the context of transformational leadership. Transformational leaders may convert crises into developmental challenges by presenting them as challenges that can be overcome, as Shackleton did. Converting crises into developmental challenges underscores the notion of resilience as growth through adversity.
How people respond to challenges and uncertainty is a function of resilience. Resilient individuals have the ability to meet adversity through resourcefulness, creativity and to be strengthened by the experience. This can be enhanced if they have an inspiring leader who models the characteristics of resilience, as demonstrated by Shackleton.
Dr Rita Parker is a consultant advisor to organisations seeking to increase their corporate and organisational resilience and crisis management ability. She is an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy campus where she lectures on resilience and non‑traditional challenges to security from non‑state actors and arising from non-human sources. Dr Parker is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for Infrastructure Protection at George Mason University Law School, Virginia, USA. She is a former senior advisor to Australian federal and state governments in the area of resilience and security. Dr Parker’s work and research has been published in peer‑reviewed journals and as chapters in books Australia, Malaysia, the United States, Singapore and Germany and presented and national and international conferences. Rita holds a PhD, MBA, Grad. Dip., BA, and a Security Risk Management Diploma.