[Last month I wrote four pieces on Resilience for the Sprinkle-Caldwell Resilience Initiative Executive Writers Series. Watson Jordan who heads Sprinkle-Calwell was kind enough to allow me to repost them here. I have decided to post all four in one place–it is definitely long as blog posts go, but as they fit together, I think it is the most effective way to present them. Some of the content has appeared in other writing on Ross All Over the Map. The originals for the Executive Writers Series can be found here.]
(1) Christmas Thunder and a Type One Diagnosis
[For me, the definition of resilience is the ability to reveal one’s strengths clearly in the face of adversity. Resilience doesn’t exist externally to us, rather it is something within us. Just as the human body is resilient, so is the person who inhabits it. When I think of resilience, I think of my daughter. Eleanor just passed her fifth “diaversary”—such a pleasant word for a sad date on the calendar, the date she was diagnosed as a Type-1 Diabetic. The grace she displays on a daily basis as she manages the disease is inspirational. Rather than muting them, it has placed her best characteristics—determination, kindness prominent among them—in relief. It will be five years ago this Christmas that I wrote about her as she adjusted to her then recent diagnosis. As I reread it, I see that resilience is present throughout—the resilience of Eleanor, the resilience of family, the resilience of the community that supports those facing illness. I have copied that reflection below.]
It has not been normal December weather. Last night, coming out of church, Eleanor and I spotted the full moon, and as we looked up waiting for my wife Katie to join us, it felt like a comfortable September evening. For a brief moment it WAS a September evening. This feeling, only a flash, was fleeting as September quickly became a time in the long distant past–a month before my daughter’s Type One Diabetes diagnosis.
I am thankful for many things. After a Fall full of challenges, my list of appreciation has gotten longer. It is a list that now includes LeBonheur Children’s Hospital, The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and most poignantly, all the people who have raised their hands and opened their arms to be helpful to us and to our daughter as we adjust to a world of checking blood glucose, delivering insulin shots, recording numbers in an ever-thickening notebook, counting carbs and dividing them by forty. Eleanor has been in what is called the Honeymoon Period–worst kind of honeymoon ever–when her pancreas tries to do its old job and is only capable of inconsistency in insulin creation. As a result, she has been on a roller-coaster of blood glucose lows and a few highs. She has eaten a life-time supply of Skittles, fifteen at a time.
Another part of our new ritual as parents is getting up at 2:00 a.m., strapping on a small headlamp, and going into Eleanor’s room to do an overnight blood glucose check. Katie has taken the lion’s share of these checks, while I have done the weekends when I can sleep in the next morning a bit beyond my normal workday alarm time. 2:00 a.m. is a weird time when I don’t want to wake up enough to be too alert to go back to sleep and I don’t want to be too asleep on my feet as I need my wits about me so I can prick her finger and get a reading. The 2:00 a.m. check brings me back to the weather. A wicked storm arrived, pulling Katie and me half-awake by 1:30. The sound led me to snippet dreams of Atlantic surf—the constant rumble, punctuated by waves crashing and driving to shore. The ebbing and flowing thunder, the growl of the rain were strange visitors for December and certainly for Christmas morning. I felt as if we had mysteriously landed in the other hemisphere where such weather might make some sense.
When I went into Eleanor’s room, she only awakened enough to give me her hand (such a thin thing her hand, warm from having been wing-tucked under her side). You might be tempted to think her hand, soft and livid, was a metaphor for her own delicacy. Not so. Not a bit. She didn’t even flinch at the prick–in the daytime she can be laughing and talking at the same time she does the does the check herself. I was never as tough as my daughter. 106–a good number. The storm held on for hours. I fell into and out of sleep and thus into and out of this storm. I was comfortable and warm, reconciled to a spotty night’s rest.
Rotten and loud as it was, this unusual weather was not all curse. Neither, I think, is my daughter’s diagnosis. Trust me, we are not thankful that Type One has come into our child’s life and made clear it is here to stay. I hate it for her. Every day I hate it for her. I hate it when she has to sit out of swim practice, or covertly check her blood while sitting in a classroom or church pew, or shed angry tears when her long acting insulin dose burns and burns.
There is, I think, a blessing here, however: nothing has made it clearer to me that we are, the three of us, all part of each other, stronger because of each other. Her diabetes makes the connection between us physical, tied together through blood and daily, increasingly mundane, rites. Her diabetes is hers, but it is also ours. Eleanor gets four shots a day–one with each meal, another long acting insulin shot at bed-time. Eleanor gives the lunch and dinner shot to herself in her legs. Katie gives her the morning shot in her left arm, and I give her the night-time shot in her right.
Katie and I each have an arm of our daughter, but make no mistake, she is walking on her own two legs. The weather looks dicey for a few more days. Who knows if real Winter weather will ever reunite with its appropriate season around here. Eleanor is across the street at a friend’s house, playing with make-up and dreaming of putting her new wakeboard into heavy use next summer. She just texted that she is low–65. In another 15 minutes, she’ll check again.
(2) Resilience Needs the Equilibrium of Both/And
Resilience is the ability to hold onto what is core to the identity and character of an institution, while also nurturing an ability to react to changes in the ecosystem of the community in which the institution exists. Like so many things, institutional resilience deepens when it is a BOTH/AND. It is BOTH keenly aware of what to preserve at all costs, AND it is willing to make changes, at times bold ones, in order to adjust to and thrive within a fast evolving operational and cultural context. The extent to which this polarity balances between the need to preserve and the demand to change defines resilience for educational, non-profit, and for-profit enterprises.
When institutions go astray in a fast-moving environment, it is likely a result of tilting too far in one direction or the other. When the preservationists dominate, an institution may become particularly brittle and thus vulnerable to outside threats—it is simply not able to adjust to or respond to challenges. When the soldiers of change dominate, corrosion is likely to occur from within as the core identity of the institution presses back against what it perceives as an existential challenge. Equilibrium is the therefor the key to institutional resilience.
Creating, and then sustaining, a Progress Culture is increasingly imperative in all sectors to achieve the institutional resilience necessary not only to survive but to maintain the potential to thrive in our world where the needles on our data dashboards are swinging back and forth with increasing drama and speed. What follows is a description of Progress Culture:
When we talk about creating a transformative moment, the goal is to move institutional operations and culture to a new place. What is misleading about this kind of talk is that it sounds as if the place where the institution lands will represent a new stationary normal. But in fact the goal is to transform into a culture in which normal will include the ongoing ability to reflect on and respond to a changing world.
If we are to help create institutions that can both withstand and excel within a forever choppy socio-economic context, we must be open to reimagining the means by which we strive to accomplish that our goals.
So many of our schools, non-profits and businesses are repositories for the way we used to do things in the larger culture. For instance, the academic schedules we use are by and large artifacts of the assembly line and the industrial revolution. Place the daily schedule of a student in 1910 against the one most of our sons and daughters navigated last week and you will be startled by the similarity. The goal of the schedule from the early part of the twentieth century was to deliver content. The emphasis was rarely on trying to help students become critical thinkers—the focus was centered obsessively with rote memorization. In the non-profits and for-profit worlds similar examples are surely easy to spot.
What we are trying to accomplish or perhaps better, the means by which we would best accomplish it, has changed dramatically, yet the cultural and operational approaches we take have too often remained almost completely intact, leaving us trying to get to the moon in a Singer Sewing Machine.
A progress-culture will:
- Always make what is best for our strategic success the alpha and omega of the conversation.
- Ask hard questions about why we do what we do in the context of the specific strategic vision.
- Be resolute in building in the best answers to those questions into the fabric of the institution.
- Be thoughtful in defining what progress is. In other words, keep a keen eye on what should never change. For example, a school should not take steps that would diminish the ability to do prepare students for college well. In fact, part of our motivation should be to improve the way we prepare students for college and for the college admissions process.
- Continually invest in the employee community so that it will be strong enough to implement the best ways forward.
- Recognize the importance of inclusive and consistent communication with all constituents. Part of the goal here is to make such a compelling case to our constituents about the need to create a progress-culture that they hold us explicitly accountable for our steps to create and maintain one.
(3) Resilience Needs Sailboats and Captains, Not Cars and Drivers
In my second post for the Resilience Initiative Executive Series entitled, “Resilience Needs the Equilibrium of Both/And,” I wrote about the importance of creating and nurturing a Progress Culture as an essential resilience tool. This piece, the third of four for the Resilience Initiative, extends that thinking and offers a way to conceptualize what was laid out in the last piece. For me, sailing offers an apt metaphor for a progress culture, as well as for the resilience requisite to preserve and extend it.
My mother grew up sailing each weekend on Fishing Bay around a point from the far larger Chesapeake Bay of Virginia and Maryland. Years later when she tried to pass along her love for sailing to my sister and me, it was clear early on I would not be much of a sailor. At age six or seven, my contribution was to complain about being bored and do my best to avoid being hit in the head by the boom swinging across when we tacked. I liked going fast, but we rarely seemed to go fast.
In the moments when the wind faded to a breeze, then diminished to stillness, I wondered why we’d chosen floating in a hot boat rather than some other more entertaining hobby such as capturing bugs on the grassy edge of the narrow bay shoreline or fishing for sharp toothed Blues. During those dead air moments, as we sat waiting for any breeze that might help us move again, I realized that sailors never go straight toward their destination. They take advantage of what the wind gives them—moving closer to but not directly at their intended destination with each tack. In the context of progress culture, they tack back and forth from preservation to change in order to get where they want to go without ever losing sight of what should never change or denying the need at times to alter approach. In other words, preservation and change exist in a symbiotic relationship with a shared goal rather than existing in a war between right and wrong where one side or the other will win.
With decades separating me from my time at Fishing Bay, I have come to see sailing as more than simply as a pastime I never quite understood well enough to see why some people thought it was fun. Good boats and accomplished sailors, like successful institutions and the experienced leaders within them, know how to make the most of the situation, and importantly they know how to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity—a breeze stiffening off the port bow or the promise of an advantageous wind around the point. Additionally, they know how to stay on course as the wind slackens or shifts. And not less significantly, they know how to read the wind so they don’t spend too much time directly into the wind (A).
The points of sail: A. Into the wind; shaded: “no-go zone” where a craft may be “in irons”. B. Close-hauled C. Beam reach D. Broad reach E. Running
Too often we try to force strategic planning into something that pretends there is an accurate roadmap for what lies ahead for an institution—a sequence of turns along a well-delineated route guaranteed to take us where we need to go. This is dangerously misleading. To believe that we are driving on a predictable path dramatically increases our vulnerability to the unforeseen circumstances that arrive for all institutions. Such roadmap-devoted leaders and institutions look great when things are going their way, when their strategy is right on schedule, when demand is high. However, when something goes off course, or when they find themselves in a “no-go zone,” they become quickly ill-equipped to take decisive action. Sailing provides a far better way of understanding a healthy approach to strategy because it prepares us both for staying on course and for finding our way back on course when the context within which we operate changes. It gives us a way of navigating all the “points of sail.”
So, what do resilient non-profits, and for-profits do? They both preserve and they change…and again…and again. They recognize that in order to end up where they want to go strategically, they must sail. Such an approach defines institutional resilience, it sets a course for strategic execution and institutional sustainability.
(4) For the Storms and Between Them–The Context for Resilience
At the annual The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) conference in Boston earlier in the month, we had the opportunity to hear Richard Weissbourd, of Harvard’s Kennedy School and its Graduate School of Education speak. The title of his talk was “How Schools Can Develop Caring, Achieving, Justice-minded Students.”
Coincidentally, I had just spent the better part of the day before with James Honan, also of both the Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Education. Jim’s insight and remarkably broad base of knowledge leave me both inspired and challenged. Beyond the content of our conversation, his enthusiasm for both Harvard and for the culture of the University and of Cambridge struck me and made me a bit envious. Jim clearly knows how to benefit from, create, contribute to, and lead engaged and challenging learning environments.
My intersection with these two men set the stage for my final piece (no. 4 of 4) for The Resilience Initiative Executive Series. Resilience exists in a context, and thus context exerts a defining force on an individual’s ability to sustain a resilient posture against the waves of challenge that inevitably arrive for all people. However, it is not just in crisis that one needs resilience; as importantly, it is also in the living of our everyday professional and personal lives that resilience is vital. Resilience provides the well of strength from which individuals can draw strength for long term devotion to a purpose greater than themselves alone.
Dr. Weissbourd spoke briefly of resilience; however, he did so only in adjunct to the subject of what schools might do to help raise “caring, achieving, and justice-minded adults.”
That said, I left with an insight into how an individual’s resilience is both born within them and produced/reinforced by the context of their upbringing. By hyper-valuing achievement above happiness and even by a greater degree, caring, we have, to use Dr. Weissbourd’s words, “den[ied] children of coping strategies.” So, the ever-lengthening list of all the things parents and schools do to protect our kids, juxtaposed against losing perspective on the appropriate balance of caring, happiness, and achievement, diminish a young person’s ability to sustain and build resilience. The mental health issues, the ever-increasing demand for counseling services, the failure of so many high school graduates to transition to the independence requisite of successful college students each point more to changes in how we (families and schools) are raising these young people than it does to changes in the innate potential of the young people themselves. [Note: Dr. Weissbourd’s primary content was hugely valuable, particularly his description of “The Four Failures of Moral Education” and “Six Key Strategies for Promoting Caring for others and the Common Good.”]
Jim Honan’s work at Harvard, which focuses on “financial management of nonprofit organizations, organizational performance measurement and management, and higher-education administration,” has been positively impactful on non-profits, schools, colleges, and universities for several decades. I knew this before arriving at his office filled with the clutter of exams, projects underway, and a framed needle-point of a large “NO” dwarfing a small “Yes.” What I didn’t know is the extent to which his specific learning environment impacts his work and creates a context for his openness to new learning and ideas of everyone around him—students, faculty, and colleagues spread far and wide around the world.
He loves Harvard—it is evident in everything he told me about it, and over the course of a couple of hours, he gave me not only an amazing tour of the University, including the stunning Kennedy School, and the town of Cambridge, but in addition he gave me insight into how immersed he is in the life of the University itself. There is resilience borne of such settings where one is known, has the opportunity (and the expectation!) to grow, and has myriad chances to contribute. Just as he plays a part in buoying the University, he is also buoyed by it. In this way he is part of the backbone of Harvard, while it serves as a key part of his backbone as well. Such is the nature of an individual’s resilience—it exists within the individual and in conjunction with the community in which that individual lives and works.
For both students as well as for professionals with decades of experience under their belts, the truth is similar regarding resilience—communities where people are challenged, cared for, known, and supported in turn produce people who challenge others, care for others, know others, and support them. Thus, the symbiotic relationship between individual and community (school, college, non-profit, or for-profit) both produces resilience and gives it legacy. It also helps produce individuals who are prepared to face tasks with resilience and humanity when they move beyond the confines of that community. The benefits of resilient individuals and resilient communities transcend merely the membership of that specific group and inevitably impact the larger communities of which they are, or will become, members.