5 Characteristics of Resilience to Help You in Toxic Situations

5 Characteristics of Resilience

When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.

Henry Ford

The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.

Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven

Diversity Comes to Lewiston

Lewiston, Maine Property Crime Rate, 1985-2012

Image Credit: Irregular Times


Lewiston, Maine was a tiny town of 36,000 people, 96% of whom were white.

After 2000, an influx of Somali immigrants came to settle in Lewiston—first as a part of a refugee program, and then as a network/enclave of Somalis developed in the area.

The small town reacted as you might expect—with ignorance, fear, and mild contempt. The mayor at the time, Laurier Raymond, wrote an open letter attempting to discourage further Somali immigrants from coming to the city. The letter gained national attention, but for all the wrong reasons.

In time, the growth of the Somali settlement in Lewiston began to have a positive effect. The immigrants opened new businesses, brought new money into the city, and revitalized the stagnant downtown area.

Diversity so transformed the city that by 2004, Inc. magazine was calling it one of the best places to do business in the U.S. The National Civic League named Lewiston an All-America City in 2007. Lewiston’s disruption became the turning point towards its revitalization and reinvention.

Diversity is one of the five keystone characteristics of resilience according to author Judith Rodin in The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong, where I first encountered the story of Lewiston, Maine.

The five characteristics of resilience according to The Resilience Dividend are:

  • Awareness
  • Diversity
  • Integration
  • Self-regulation
  • Adaptation

In this article, we’ll address 3 of these 5 characteristics in depth and cover how to prepare for and recover from disaster.

Here we go.

This is the 2nd of a 3-part series on resilience. You can use the following links to read the 1st part of this series (What is resilience?).

The Imperial Hotel and the Great Kanto Earthquake

Characteristics of Resilience: The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Imperial Hotel Tokyo

Photo Credit: Collin Grady

Self-regulation is the fourth characteristic of resilience in The Resilience Dividend.

Now, when you hear the words “self-regulation,” what comes to mind tends to be images of self-denial and self-control, like the squirming kids in the famous Marshmallow Test experiment.

The characteristic of self-regulating in this context means that when one aspect of the system is tested, another part of the system can compensate.

Self-regulating isn’t about rigidity and brute force. On the contrary, self-regulating aspects are often lean, lightweight, and flexible. Here’s Rodin:

An early and famous example is that of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, opened in 1922, which was designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who vowed to make a structure that would withstand the earthquakes that have long been common in that area.

… The two men [Wright and engineer Paul Mueller], whose practices were based in Chicago, included many features designed to make the hotel more able to withstand seismic shock. These included an exterior reflecting pool, which looked like a design feature but doubled as a source of water for firefighting (this is an ancient method that you can also see outside the buildings of the Forbidden City in Beijing), special wall joints that could absorb seismic energy, and plumbing and electrical components that—like the floors of the Mediatheque—were exposed and suspended, instead of encased within walls where they could be damaged if the walls buckled or collapsed.

Wright and Mueller also picked up a few other tricks in Chicago—including building the main structure as a series of independent structures, each resting on its own separate foundation pad of concrete.

In 1923, a mere year after its opening, the Imperial Hotel’s revolutionary design was tested by the Great Kanto earthquake. While it didn’t emerge unscathed, the Imperial Hotel’s design minimized the seismic damage. The structure stood until it was voluntarily demolished in 1967 to make way for a larger high-rise structure.

The Vietnamese Community After Katrina

Characteristics of Resilience: The Vietnamese Community of Village de l'est after Hurricane Katrina

Photo Credit: Kingprince

Village de l’Est, the community of Vietnamese-Americans in New Orleans, showed remarkable adaptability—the fifth characteristic of resilience—after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Rodin sets the table:

The Vietnamese community evacuated early; nearly 80 percent had left the city when Katrina hit. About half of them went to Houston, Texas, which had, at the time, the second-largest Vietnamese population in the country. Most of the evacuees stayed with family or friends, many of whom had also settled there after the war. Less than a quarter stayed in shelters.

Trust me, this isn’t only a story about the power of networks. You’ve heard that story before.

What the ethnically Vietnamese members of the Village de l’Est community did next puts this story into another category altogether:

Only a few weeks after the storm, the community made a bold move. Led by Father Vien The Nguyen, the pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in Village de l’Est, three hundred parishioners returned to New Orleans, despite objections from both state and federal authorities. They negotiated with Entergy, the utilities provider, to get back on the grid, restoring power and water to the community by November 2005.

As they resettled, the Vietnamese residents of Village de l’Est reached out to black leaders in the community and invited them to join in the first mass in New Orleans East since Katrina. The new neighborhood that emerged from this strengthening coalition was more resilient and more culturally rich than the one that came before it.

Adaptability isn’t simply about coming back from adversity. Adaptability is about bouncing back stronger and more prepared for future shocks.

The 5 Characteristics of Resilience

Here, in their entirety, are the five characteristics of resilience Judith Rodin identifies in The Resilience Dividend.

AWARE The entity has knowledge of its strengths and assets, liabilities and vulnerabilities, and the threats and risks it faces. Being aware includes situational awareness: the ability and willingness to constantly assess, take in new information, and adjust understanding in real time.

DIVERSE The entity has different sources of capacity so it can successfully operate even when elements of that capacity are challenged: there are redundant elements or assets. The entity possesses or can draw upon a range of capabilities, ideas, information sources, technical elements, people or groups.

INTEGRATES The entity has coordination of functions and actions across systems, including the ability to bring together disparate ideas and elements, work collaboratively across elements, develop cohesive solutions, and coordinate actions. Information is shared and communication is transparent.

SELF-REGULATING The entity can regulate itself in ways that enable it to deal with anomalous situations and disruptions without extreme malfunction or catastrophic collapse. Cascading disruptions do not result when the entity suffers a severe dysfunction; it can fail safely.

ADAPTIVE The entity has the capacity to adjust to changing circumstances by developing new plans, taking new actions, or modifying behaviors. The entity is flexible: it has the ability to apply existing resources to new purposes or for one element to take on multiple roles.

How many can you identify in yourself?

When Disruption Becomes Disaster

Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.

Charles Swindoll

Sometimes, a simple disruption spirals into full-blown disaster.

On the individual scale, it can be as simple as ignoring the balance on one too many credit cards and paying the minimums to get by. One missed payment soon turns into dealing with a collections agency. Getting harassed daily by creditors then turns into bankruptcy quicker than anyone ever imagines.

Here’s Rodin:

The disruptive event escalates into a crisis of great proportion, catalyzes other problems, cascades across domains and scales, spins things out of control, and disturbs human activity to an abnormal, unpredictable, and often unimaginable degree, causing injury and loss of life, destruction of property, damage to livelihoods, and upheavals in social, political, and economic endeavors.

What causes a disruption to become a disaster? We do. Disasters are almost always human made or, at least, intensified by how well people have prepared for, responded to, and recovered from a crisis. Disasters are the result of disruptions coinciding with vulnerabilities, our lack of awareness of the threats we face, our lack of diversity of options and choices to prevent disruptions or manage them when they occur, our inability to integrate our ideas and actions into effective solutions, and our instability and poor adaptiveness to new circumstances as they emerge.

A key aspect of resilience is preparation, the readiness and capacity to deal with life’s disruptive events.

We can’t be ready for everything. But we can limit our contribution to a crisis by not losing our heads and relying on the five characteristics of resilience to bounce back better and faster.

“Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste”

Resilience requires readiness. The more ready you are for change, the more resilience you build.

Here’s Rodin:

The more ready you are, the less damage and dysfunction you are likely to experience when a disruption takes place. Although we cannot prepare ourselves completely for the specific circumstances of the unpredictable disruption, we can be ready for the predictable ones, and that general readiness contributes to our capacity to deal with whatever else comes along.

It’s unpredictable disruptions that we need to watch out for. But predictable disruptions, like credit card bills or medical payments coming due, can be budgeted for and mitigated to a great extent.

Getting predictable disruptions right leaves us with greater capacity to deal with the stuff that makes us truly vulnerable—the truly unpredictable disasters.

And once disaster strikes, it’s incumbent upon us to learn from what happened so that we can be ready the next time.

When a once-unpredictable disaster occurs—levees breaking, oil rigs exploding, layoffs/downsizing for the “protected” employees—once that happens, a disaster ceases to be unpredictable and becomes predictable.

Here’s how Rodin puts it:

In the context of resilience, then, it is very hard for us to imagine, and nearly impossible to predict, how a disruption will play out and what a disaster might look like. This is one reason it is so difficult to get people to focus on things that might go wrong or to make decisions about how to deal with threats, especially when they involve multiple vulnerabilities and multiple stakeholders. That’s why it’s important to move as swiftly as possible in the revitalization process. Because the disruption and its effects are highly available, it is more likely that people will be able to focus on them and be willing to devote energy to looking for solutions. If you wait too long, something else will come along and overshadow the availability of the disruption.

Never let a good crisis go to waste.

The urge to reform gun laws and revise banking regulations peaks after respective crises threaten the status quo. But after that moment passes, we quickly get on with business as usual, forgetting the lesson.

Our failure as a society can’t be mimicked at the individual level. If you don’t learn anything from a disaster, can you really recover from one?

Relief, Restoration, and Recovery

Disaster experts believe there are three phases of the post-crisis period—relief, restoration, and recovery:

Relief involves the alleviation of acute crisis conditions, including search, evacuation, and rescue; delivery of basic supplies; and provision of essential services. Restoration can include many activities, including the bringing back of utilities, communications networks, and transportation systems—and the repair and return to service of damaged facilities and infrastructure. Recovery is a broader concept, usually referring to human or other natural systems, including bringing organizations, communities, and environments back to successful functioning.

While these definitions are useful, Rodin argues that they don’t fully describe how post-disruption recovery truly works.

For one thing, the cycle suggests things will “get back to normal” or return to their previous state. Not so, says Rodin. Some entities won’t make it. Others will thrive:

But resilient entities—those with high levels of awareness, sufficient readiness, and the capacity to effectively respond—move on. Not only do they bounce back to a functioning state, they bounce forward: they nurture natural systems, improve structures, and strengthen social ties.

So which will you choose: thriving resilience or fragile rigidity?

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