We are all familiar with the scenario. One author coins or uses a term, it gets picked up by someone else, both are quoted in a third source and so on. Pretty soon, it is on the pages of Harvard Business Review and now it is the latest bona fide management craze. Lately, there has been quite a crop of articles on resilient individuals, resilient organizations, resilience as the new skill no manager can do without, revenue resilience, etc.

So I decided to do some research (OK…more like poking around) and see who is actually talking about what, based on what evidence.

As a teenager studying the Holocaust, I was fascinated by stories of wartime survival and courage. Part of my extended family spent much of the war hidden away in farmhouse attics like Anne Frank’s family, then came to the US and lived reasonably “normal” lives. How exactly was that possible I wondered? Dr. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote eloquently in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, about the need for clarity of purpose and meaning even when confronted with a seemingly hopeless situation.

He knew at the very core of his being that no matter what his tormentors did to his body, no one had access to his soul, his values, or his thoughts. Other studies of Holocaust survivors pointed out that many of the survivors used humor, albeit black humor, as a kind of shield that helped them to keep perspective. Underlying meaning is always a strong sense of values. Without ever using the word “resilience”, in my mind this formed the core of how I have always thought about that word. But what did my notion of resilience have in common or not with the ways people are writing and talking it now?

Most of the current discussion on resilience seems to agree that no individual and no company can completely avoid setbacks, pitfalls, or unpleasant surprises no matter the degree of their preparedness. The vagaries of the stock market, political upheaval, earthquakes and similar weather disasters, new competition, sudden death or disability of a key person, miscalculations or outright mistakes, etc. can all take an enormous toll on either individuals or organizations or both.

What distinguishes the resilient from others is the skill with which they react to this adversity…do they give up or do they find a new way, a new path that incorporates learning and growth?

Much of the recent research on resilience suggests that resilience can be learned. In contrast to earlier thinking that resilience is a trait you are either born with or not, and is the product of an optimistic nature, now there is evidence that resilience can be cultivated and learned.

At the organizational level, it is clearly not the product of the aggregation of a bunch of optimistic people. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, learned through his research on companies able to transform themselves from mediocre to world-class, that the survivors had the ability to face reality squarely, to plan for the absolute worst, even while they had the optimism to hope for the best.

Diane Coutu’s article in HBR (May 2002), says that resilient organizations as well as resilient people have these three characteristics in common: a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief buttressed by strongly-held values that life is meaningful; and the ability to improvise.

At the organization level, those strong values become the guiding lights during times of turbulence and huge stress, providing the container within which employees can experiment and improvise new solutions, rather than seeing themselves as victims with no options.

Diane Coutu concludes, “Resilience is a reflex, a way of facing and understanding the world…resilient people and companies face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair, and improvise solutions from thin air. Others do not. This is the nature of resilience, and we will never completely understand it.