From Brenda in Hove: When the going gets tough, the tough gets going: a matter of resilience

21 October

The Economist tells us this week that resilience has become “the buzzword for governments in the face of the pandemic (and) covers not only supply chains but also the ability to forge a political consensus around a strategy.” (October 17th) How fortunate that one of our bloggers (Louis van der Merwe) is just about ready to publish a book on that very subject: Gauging the Resilience of City and Town Government: A Manual for Strategists. 

The book addresses the issue of resilience in organisations – and especially resilience in those organisations that go to make up the government of a country, its towns and cities and other units employed in managing an increasingly complex world. It not only gives practical guidance on how to gauge the levels of resilience, but also ways of developing strategies to improve resilience.

The manual does indeed come at a fortuitous time. We would have done well to pay more attention to organisational resilience before the advent of the Covid19 pandemic. Emerging economies as well as developed economies are all experiencing serious economic decline as they struggle to adjust to the realities of life in a pandemic. Their lack of readiness to withstand the challenges posed are being exposed in most areas of public life: health, transport, supply chains, education, human capacity management, and governance systems, to name but some. It is almost like the sticking plaster that was keeping things together has been ripped off and the wounds below are exposed – fault lines if you like. Some would argue that this pandemic and how we steer our way through it is just a “dress rehearsal” for the much larger disrupter that lies ahead: climate change. However one frames the issues, there can be no doubt that making sure we have resilient towns and cities is a significant way to rebuild economies and organizations and prepare ourselves for a future that is significantly different to the past. We will be surely tested to the limits. Louis’ work and the research that went into the book (with a doctorate collected along the way) will be useful.    

Resilience is of course not just a matter for organisations but also for individuals. A couple of years ago, The World Health Organization described stress as the “global health epidemic of the 21st century” and building resilience (physical and mental strength) has been on the agenda of healthcare professionals for some time. It has also been on the curriculum for training in leadership for several years. And that was before COVID (and its attendant recession) and the prospect of climate change.

I have long been interested in resilience as a topic to address in mentoring and other activities. There are all sorts of ways to build individual resilience and most of us are familiar with the mantras of exercise, meditation and other good practices in our daily lives. What is less discussed are the casts of minds that help people through difficult times. One of these is optimism. Optimism is certainly helpful in maintaining resilience. I am a naturally optimistic person, but I must say I have to concentrate on staying that way, at the moment. In the UK we have a government which has not distinguished itself in handling the Covid crisis. We learn that the NHS did go through a disaster management exercise a few years ago – the kind of exercise designed precisely to gauge its resilience in the face of something like a pandemic, and simply shelved the result. No-one has been held accountable for this unpardonable failure of leadership. Books, manuals, strategies all rely on implementation – and on accountability.

The very heart of democracy seems to be under attack – even in those countries which we have come to believe are models of democracy. I point to the UK and the US as just two. Both have leaders that seem to defy the very fundamental underpinning of democracy in action – and get away with it. I long for the American people to call out these things as they go to the polls and I hope they restore our faith. I am holding my breath.

In the meantime, I cling to the motto of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, a motto he described as having “the pessimism of the intellect while at the same time having the optimism of the will”. That is, our intellect tells us that there is much to concern us, but we know that humans are good at solving problems. Exercising our will to be optimistic means we have hope that the difficulties we encounter can probably we resolved to a greater or lesser extent.   

Neither the adaptation to the covid virus nor the greater challenges that need to be wrought in the face of climate change will happen by wishful thinking. Helen Macdonald in her powerful new book (Vesper Flights) warns against the danger of “apocalyptic thinking being antagonistic to action.” There are all sorts of ways in which we can act, she says: “we can exert pressure, we can speak up, we can march and cry and mourn others, and hope and fight for the world, standing with others, even if we don’t believe it. Even if change seems an impossibility. For even if we don’t believe in miracles, they are there, and they are waiting for us to find them.”   

Congratulations to Louis for playing his part.