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SupaThink: Individual vs Collective Resilience

As leaders we encourage resilience, but is there a need to find a balance between individual and collective resilience? And what drives resilience anyway? Is it fueled primarily by individual strengths or the result of extraordinary outside forces or the external environment? What should leaders do to strike the right balance?

To potentially answer some of these questions, a thought-provoking and interesting perspective is provided by Wolfgang Streeck in his book "How Will Capitalism End?" in which he argues that Capitalism as a social and political structure is inherently unstable, full of conflicts and therefore doomed for failure. He points to declining growth, growing inequality and rising public and private debt as the main drivers which mutually re-enforce each other and create a "lasting interregnum of multi-morbidity". Arguably, this death spiral is fueled by low growth, which contributes to inequality by intensifying distributional conflicts; inequality dampens growth by restricting effective demand; and high levels of debt clog credit markets and increase likelihood of financial crisis. An interesting perspective is that Capitalism may create a fundamental misalignment between economic and political objectives and goals – as market forces are driving towards change, growth and economic prosperity versus social forces on the other hand towards stability, peace and equality. This political and economic misalignment creates continuous friction, unintended consequences and a period of intensifying conflict, fragility and uncertainty. As we observe current trends across the world we may see this misalignment playing out.

Most interesting to me was the author's argument that capitalism has also created the need for "individual resilience" – those who are able to cope with ambiguity, change and uncertainty; embrace continuous learning and training and are able to imagine and believe in a better life will be positioned to succeed. In turn, this desire to succeed or want something different, drives the "capitalistic" innovation machine forward to find new ways to satisfy these needs – as a result permanently revolutionizing society, even encouraging greed, creating a constant need for individual differentiation and state of restlessness. I have never looked at resilience from this perspective. If Capitalism is on a path of "self-destructive destruction of its social containment" – despite being a big "if" – one must wonder what will evolve in its place. Whatever the outcomes, they will definitely have implications across everything we do. My hope is that we may be able to evolve from individual resilience to collective resilience, which places greater emphasize on the well-being of others, developing socially and environmentally sustainable business models and a more concerted and rigorous effort in solving the major problems in our world.

It is important to note that individual resilience is extremely important but we should recognize that it may have unintended consequences. To strike the right balance, authentic leaders can emphasize collective resilience, by:

  1. Encouraging an environment that fosters continuous learning to increase the understanding and institutional knowledge about the broader implications and context;

  2. Creating a culture that fosters an open-mind and encourages dialogue around difficult and complex issues, without judgment or bias as much as possible;

  3. Eliminating our over-reliance on assumptions and pre-dispositions;

  4. Strengthening the understanding of macro-level trends and encouraging an exploratory mindset to understand underpinnings and potential impacts to our business model and organization; and

  5. Leading with conviction and by continuously aligning and adjusting the purpose of the organization to the ever-changing dynamics of the environment and context.

As leaders, we can increase our focus on fostering collective resilience. While it may seem that increasing complexity and uncertainties represent insurmountable challenges for our world, strong leaders see the vast opportunities for change and a path forward – a path to making the world a better place. To quote Kin Hubbard: "There is no failure except in no longer trying. There is no defeat except from within, no really insurmountable barrier save our own inherent weakness of purpose."

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