In the sweep of recent history, there’s a familiar theme: almost no one and no nation is ever prepared for a crisis. This one is no different. There have been ample warnings of the potential for a pandemic along with some trial runs in recent years, yet no one was prepared.

If you read history, it’s clear we celebrate crisis leaders for their resilience and creativity in helping people survive and sustain. I read everything I come across on Churchill, Lincoln, and others who inspire us through the ages. However, I wonder just a bit why we don’t do a better job creating leaders who prepare for and even prevent crises in the first place.

Didn’t anyone read the fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper? If you read it, do you remember the lessons?

The Signs are Always There, We Just Have to Read Them

In my stay-at-home, gray, cold Chicago weather state of existence, when I’m not working, I immerse myself in books on history. This week, I’m consuming multiple volumes on the run-up to and start of World War II.

I’m fascinated by the politics of the time and the raging battles over how to deal with the rise of Hitler and the remilitarization of Germany. No nation-state on the planet was prepared for what was to come, yet it’s hard to believe it could have been any clearer. And this brings me to my point. Why do we, as a species, seem to genuinely stink at preparing for the worst when the times are good? And what the heck are leaders doing during the good times to make sure we’re ready for the inevitable downturn?

A Missing Theme in Our Models of Leadership: Leading for Resilience

We celebrate and wax poetically about great leaders stretching, reaching, innovating, and striving to build a glorious future, seemingly without fear. And there are indeed some incredible successes. However, maybe we’ve left out a critical theme in what defines great leadership: leading for resilience.

What about great leadership that helps their organization design resilience into every aspect of its operations? Let’s celebrate the leaders who refuse to fall victim to the lure of placing their supply-chain solely in the hands of unfriendly actors to save money. Or, celebrate the leaders who are savvy enough to diversify their business model(s) to absorb a shock in one area and still keep going.

Thinking Through What It Means to Lead for Resilience

Leading for resilience doesn’t mean not taking risks. It doesn’t suggest hunkering down and letting the race go to the swift. It isn’t mutually exclusive with striving for agility, speed, and the ability to pivot. All of those attributes are essential to a resilient organization.

Leading for resilience means not getting caught in the many human mental traps that keep us driving blindly into uncertainty. Consider our stubborn, irrational adherence to short-termism via the markets and our reward systems. How many modern-day crises do we need before we wrestle this one to the ground?

Frankly, I’m looking for signs of leadership that care enough about their stakeholders, particularly their employees, that they design resilience into the business at every level. Robust processes of scenario planning, Red Teaming, and mathematical approaches to risk modeling are starters.

Infusing cultures with strong, clear, management principles and managers who look out for the customers and employees are all essential for creating resilience. Jeff Bezos may have created the most resilient organization the planet has ever seen with his approaches to these very items.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The human and economic cost—it’s not right to separate them in this case—is creating a living nightmare for all of us. We’re in it now, and we need all the great crisis leadership we can get. However, as this evolves into what we term normal, let’s start building a new model for our organization and our leaders. It’s time to start leading for resilience.

Art's Signature