5 Stories of Resilience and What They Mean For You

Resilience Stories

All this month, we’ve been talking about resilience, that seemingly magical quality exhibited by certain individuals and organizations that allows them to bounce back from severe disruption and even grow, adapt, and thrive.

In Part 1 we covered what resilience means and in Part 2 we looked at the five characteristics of resilience.

Here in Part 3, the final installment, we examine five specific examples of resilience—just about the only trait that could unite these five very different stories of resilience:

  • a Swedish furniture store recovering from a hurricane
  • a manufacturing CEO facing a tough layoff decision
  • a San Francisco emergency director preparing for the big one
  • an iron man pitcher refusing to accept his injury as permanent
  • Airbnb hosts with extra capacity and open hearts

5 Resilience Stories

#1: Ikea vs. Fairway After Superstorm Sandy

Resilience Stories: IKEA versus Fairway

Take the tale of two Red Hook shopping goliaths: Fairway and Ikea. Built within miles of one another and the bay, the two retail behemoths were staples of the Brooklyn community.

Then Superstorm Sandy hit.

“The Ikea store, which opened in 2008, was built to be resilient. It was constructed on pilings, with a ground floor garage and the show floors and inventory on the upper floors; the building also has an emergency generator,” writes Judith Rodin in The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong.

When Superstorm Sandy hit, Ikea took some minor damage to its elevators, outside benches, and parking lot. But it reopened quickly after the storm, and even became a temporary headquarters for FEMA to distribute food, clothing, and supplies to the neighborhood.

Fairway didn’t fair as well. Its nineteenth-century warehouse building took the brunt of the flooding. Red Hook’s Fairway closed its doors and didn’t reopen.

“It finally had to gut the building, renovate, and restock its entire inventory—a process that took four months. Fairway, a nearly $1 billion company, was able to survive the loss, although a smaller operation might well have failed,” writes Rodin.

Ikea reaped the resilience dividend—not only did it reopen quicker than Fairway after the storm, it built ties with the community by serving an important role in the relief effort. As Rodin writes, “its business was only briefly disrupted by the storm and it took advantage of a new opportunity.”

#2: Bob Chapman at Barry-Wehmiller: “Better That We All Suffer a Little”

This story comes from Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t by Simon Sinek.

Bob Chapman, Chairman and CEO of manufacturing concern Barry-Wehmiller, couldn’t afford to keep all of his employees. Instead of succumbing to the temptation of easy answers—layoffs—Chapman instead implemented an innovative furlough program:

Every employee, from CEO to secretary, would have to take four weeks of unpaid time off. They could take the weeks off whenever they wanted and the weeks did not have to be taken consecutively. But it was how Chapman announced the program that proved his leadership bona fides. “It is better that we all suffer a little,” he told his people, “so that none of us has to suffer a lot.”

Let’s marvel at Chapman’s ingenuity for a minute: Who wouldn’t want four weeks of time off? Yes, the “unpaid” bit hurts—a lot—but by framing the furlough program as shared sacrifice, Chapman allows his employees to take guilt-free time to relax, recharge, and fight off burnout.

Here’s Sinek again:

The protection Chapman offered his people had a massive impact. Unlike in a company that announces layoffs, sending everyone into self-preservation mode, at Barry-Wehmiller the people spontaneously, and completely on their own, set out to do more for each other. Those who could more afford the time off traded with those who could afford it less. Though they were under no obligation to do so, they took off more unpaid time than required just to help someone else out. The overwhelming feeling across the company was one of gratitude for the security they had been given. I suspect in other companies that face hard times, most of the people would also rather lose a month’s pay than lose their job.

The added resilience benefit to furloughs? Barry-Wehmiller can take advantage quicker when the demand bounces back. Its downsizing rivals, on the other hand, have to re-hire to get back up to capacity.

Score on all fronts.

#3: What Are You Willing to Let Burn?

Resilience Stories: San Francisco Emergency Planners

As a young man, Rob Dudgeon was working the ambulances during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and bridge collapse in San Francisco. He has since worked his way up to deputy director of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management.

Here’s Rodin from The Resilience Dividend:

For the most part, Dudgeon’s agency wants to keep San Francisco’s elected officials “out of the weeds” of emergency preparedness and management so they can deal with crucial high-level, often difficult, planning choices. “Let’s not talk about where you are going to park the fire engine,” he says. “Let’s talk about what parts of the city you’re willing to let burn.” Obviously, no city leader wants to let any part of the city burn, but thinking about such overarching issues—what happens if?—are matters of policy and, of course, politics.

Dudgeon’s framing of the question is a great one.

If disruption happens to you, which parts of your life are you willing to let burn?

Perhaps it’s knowing which household expenses and luxuries you can shed after a job loss. Or who and what you can say no to in your life. Or which draining friends and family you can cut from your personal life.

The point is you’re probably better prepared for disruption than you think:

“In an emergency,” says Dudgeon, “people do what they did yesterday.” SF72 wanted to break away from the fear-based messaging so often associated with preparedness activities, and it does it very pointedly by telling visitors to the site: You’re more prepared than you think. You know your networks, your connections; you can fill in holes in your emergency supplies on your next errands run. Readiness, as SF72 knows, is about readiness to help each other and to receive help from others. A line on the site reads as follows: “actual emergencies look more like people coming together than cities falling apart.”

Let the unimportant things go and help one another.

Good advice even when there isn’t an emergency.

#4: Who Tommy John Surgery Is Named After

Resilience Stories: Tommy John

In The Obstacle Is the Way, author Ryan Holiday tells the story of Major League Baseball pitcher, Tommy John.

Tommy John pitched professional baseball for twenty-six seasons, an astounding feat of longevity for a professional athlete.

John’s nearly superhuman endurance and career came from asking the same sort of questions over and over: “Is there a chance? Do I have a shot? Is there something I can do?”

All he ever looked for was a yes, no matter how slight or tentative or provisional the chance. If there was a chance, he was ready to take it and make good use of it—ready to give every ounce of effort and energy he had to make it happen. If effort would affect the outcome, he would die on the field before he let that chance go to waste.

In the middle of the 1974 season, John blew out his pitching arm, permanently damaging the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.

In 1974, this was a career-ending injury. Except for Tommy John.

Was there any chance? Did he have a shot? Was there something he could do?

Yes, as it turned out. Doctors clued him in on an experimental surgery that could replace the ligament with a tendon from another part of his body. It worked.

The procedure is now commonly known as Tommy John surgery.

In life, the ninety-nine no’s rarely matter; it’s the one yes that counts.

#5: Latent Surplus: Airbnb Hosts Step Up After Disaster

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, there were countless displaced residents of New York and New Jersey looking for shelter.

Airbnb hosts with spare rooms wanted to know if they could offer their extra space for free:

Good idea, but Airbnb was not set up to offer free accommodations. Then an Airbnb host, based in Brooklyn, called and pleaded. Wasn’t there some way she could her accommodation for free to people displaced by the storm? Yes, there was. “Our engineers stayed up all night long, basically rebuilding the whole backend of the website to enable people to list their properties for $0,” [Airbnb director of public policy Molly] Turner says. The team also created a new landing page—www.airbnb.com/sandy—where hosts could click a button to automatically have their listing posted for free. “Within about a week,” Turner says, “we had over 1,400 hosts offer up the extra space in their homes to displaced New Yorkers for free.”

That’s Rodin again writing in The Resilience Dividend.

Airbnb’s response to Superstorm Sandy is particularly interesting because it also demonstrates the important role of spare capacity—or as it is also called “latent surplus”—in response to crisis. “Even in a city where there is a huge housing shortage,” Turner says, “there are still people living in houses that are too big for them or that they only use part time because maybe they travel a lot for work.”

Latent surplus is great from a system perspective. Relying on the latent surplus of others is how services like Airbnb and Lyft work.

But in a crisis, it can be hard to remember what kind of latent surpluses we have that can help others.

Resilience might be a function of what you already have, like latent surplus or recognizing you’re more prepared than you think as the San Francisco emergency planners would have you believe.

Resilience might come in the form of forethought, as in the case of Ikea, or creativity, as with Barry-Wehmiller.

Or resilience might be best represented by the old-fashioned, never-give-up grit of a Tommy John.

So let’s turn it over to you: Which of these five stories of resilience is most readily adaptable to your life and why?

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