Resilience in business is a hot topic today. Experts on business organizational health write about it. Instructors of employee engagement talk about it. Psychologists expound on it. Go shopping for one book about resilience and you will find dozens.
What is resilience anyway?
Why are we supposed to pay attention to it? Resilience is the ability to spring back into shape, to bounce back from difficult experiences. It’s a concept that has drawn attention as more and more people find that the order around them – the framework in which they live and work – is not as ordered as it used to be. The more disorienting the world becomes, the more people look to the concept of resilience to make sense of their lives.
This is certainly true of any family enterprise setting. In my work advising family owners, I encounter the fear families have of being seen as imperfect. No one – no individual, no family – wants to be under a microscope, to be nothing but a lab specimen. No one likes wearing unflattering labels. No one enjoys being called “dysfunctional.” (Actually, the whole concept of “dysfunction” in families is questionable, but that’s an issue for another time.)
Is resilience the best way to think about solutions to human imperfection in family settings – family ownership, family decision-making, family succession?
Might there be a better way? The answer is yes, there is a better way. I witnessed it last March on a trip to England I took with my college-age daughter, Grace. Grace was born with a very serious heart problem called tricuspid atresia. If she were of my generation, she would have died shortly after birth. Yet here she is today, now age 20, part of a small patient population that is motoring through life in ways not possible 50 years ago.
Tricuspid atresia, like life itself, consists of a series of challenges. First is moderating the heart’s pressures right after birth. Next is surgery at six months. Then comes major surgery at age three. Along the way are echocardiograms, medication adjustments, surprise worries, and many trips to the doctor. Once the person is an adult, the big question arises: where to find good transitional heart care? The challenges are life-long.
In the face of all this, the better way, which Grace exhibited in England in March, is the way of perseverance, not just resilience. Perseverance is persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.
Resilience has a lot of surface appeal.
It suggests mental toughness and snapping back into shape. Who wouldn’t want those qualities? But resilience connotes primarily the ability to return to one’s original condition, to not be thrown off track. This is good, but it raises the question of a person’s ultimate end. Everyone wants to be able to get back to “normal,” but everyone also wants their lives to be going somewhere. This aspect of going somewhere, of forward movement, of moving toward a goal, is what perseverance adds. Perseverance is a person continuing toward a goal, even though the path is narrow, the ground is uneven, and considerable delays and setbacks arise.
The England trip was part of Grace’s goal. She had wanted to go since high school. We toured places that themselves are artifacts of perseverance: Westminster Abbey, a site that has existed for nearly 1,000 years; Canterbury, to which religious pilgrims first walked in the 1300s; the moor-topped cliffs of Dover, a pivotal site for both the Dunkirk evacuation and the Normandy invasion in World War II; and Grace’s favorite city, Oxford, home of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, her favorite pub, The Eagle and Child, and her favorite bookstore, Blackwell’s.
Heart condition aside, Grace’s life is not dramatically different than that of any family enterprise owner. Every such owner is born with imperfections. Every one struggles to take ownership of their situation, despite their own imperfections and their imperfect family. Every one must arrive at a workable way to make decisions with others whose interests are just as vested as their own. And every one must keep their end goals firmly in mind.
With perseverance, there is always space left to keep moving toward an end. There is always more room. Grace is a writer – a good writer. For her, and for all those writing the life of their family enterprise, in the words of singer Dwight Yoakam, “All the pages are still there to write.” You just need to use perseverance to write them.