Leadership: Resilience versus Adaptability – Which is Better?

I struggled with this question. For many years I thought that adaptability was everything. Behold the chameleon that blended in or Charles Darwin’s theory of survival – “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change.” But the more I researched firms as they responded to crisis I found highly adaptable firms lost their way – they were like a leaf swaying in the wind, tossed and turned and directionless. People were exactly the same, and if they did not have a grounding, they dissipated with the vagrancies of life. So adaptable was great, but as I looked at startups and leaders, I felt too much adaptability was a liability. You got lost because you had no direction.

For startups, being adaptable may mean making sure what you think is a solution to a problem is actually the right solution the customer wants. Incremental modifications based on feedback. I love the idea of the smoke test that Idealabs promotes, however, the Lean Startup approach of “validated learning” and “build-measure-learn” according to Daniel McGinn may mean that none of them have enough passion “to change the world (or, significantly, employ many people); instead of being “built to last,” these firms seem “built to be acquired by Google.” Adaptability is great for survival – but what if I want more?

What about resilience? I never liked the thought of being resilient because it meant you had to take the punches to be tough and then recover from them quickly enough. What was quick enough? How much could you take before you broke? These are important questions the USA military is spending money on in terms of psychological training.

From an ecosystem perspective, Walker defines resilience as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” (Walker et al. 2004:4). This definition I like (excuse the minor modifications):

  1. Know what you won’t compromise on
  2. Adapt to manage the blows and spread the shock
  3. Learn, Learn, Learn!
  1. What you won’t compromise on

So what are your values and the ethos you won’t compromise on? As a leader you sometimes need to park ideas on the side. You need to be clear that these are ideas and not values. I think it is important to understand the difference. Values spring form your belief system – how should my decisions be morally guided, how do I treat people, what is wrong and right? But ideas are thoughts or representations of thoughts and not necessarily values. I remember many years back giving up a job offer I had because I disagreed with the cultural values of the organization. This was a highly competitive culture with no trust. Many years later I could recognize a bit of Enron in the company. It was a great job – prestigious, high paying but after six months it was hard to think two managers would sit three desks from each other and not talk to one another because they were worried if the other would steal their idea. I could not see myself looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life.

Knowing what you will not compromise on means having a goal post, especially if it is a positive one. Marano, Editor-at-Large for Psychology Today, in her article “The Art of Resilience” wrote, “”At the heart of resilience is a belief in oneself—yet also a belief in something larger than oneself. Resilient people do not let adversity define them. They find resilience by moving towards a goal beyond themselves, transcending pain and grief by perceiving bad times as a temporary state of affairs… It’s possible to strengthen your inner self and your belief in yourself, to define yourself as capable and competent. It’s possible to fortify your psyche. It’s possible to develop a sense of mastery.” You must have a goal beyond yourself to give you strength – so it is not all about you!

  1. Adapt to manage the blows and spread the shock

Life has its ups and downs. It has a funny way of hitting you with a sledgehammer when you are least unprepared. Resilience is the ability to “bounce back”, to recover quickly from difficulties. Is that better than adaptability? This ability to bounce back from the setbacks of life has a lot to do with positive emotions according to many studies. Positive emotions, optimism or the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback have been shown to play a crucial role in enhancing coping resources and health in the face of negative events. You have to adapt to cope and then manage the feelings and outcomes of the set-back. Easier said than done. I have seen two people from similar troubled backgrounds, one coped with a “half full outlook” and the other with “half empty”. Both were very highly successful. Both coped and perhaps were adaptable but not fully resilient. And this brings me to the last point. Coping is not enough to be resilient.

  1. Learn! Learn! Learn!

You have to learn from setbacks to become more adaptable and you have to push yourself to recover to be more resilient. Part of learning according to Juliana Breines, PhD, is being kind to yourself; shifting focus on the impact this had from yourself to others, working on changeable behaviors and focusing on external factors that can be influenced – you need all of them. Part of learning is getting over the “grief” process. And depending on how “involved” you were – you may go through the stages of Kübler-Ross model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Acceptance is that feeling that things have happened and you prepare for the future. It does not mean defeat. A friend asked how long can you take? I think you should take as much time as you need but if it affects decisions in your professional and personal life, seeing a counselor or getting support is not a bad idea. It is very tempting to retreat to a safe place and “lick your wounds”….but the world outside changes and worse it begins speculating so you have to get the courage to show yourself. Friends are a great resource but can get weary too.

So what do I choose? I think resilience, since it also embeds adaptability. I choose to be resilient. And face the future knowing that tomorrow is another day where great things can happen. Hope is a great motivator inspiring people to reach for internal resources they never knew they had.

Hope sees the invisible, Feels the intangible, and Achieves the impossible – Unknown.


About Melodena

Professor Marketing Strategy & Branding Passionate about Branding, Entrepreneurship (especially social entrepreneurship), Place Marketing, and Crisis Management. Working to educate the world about MENA regional opportunities!
This entry was posted in Crisis Management, Entrepreneurship, failure, leadership, PEOPLE MANAGEMENT, purpose and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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