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Most of what I have read about resilience during the COVID era centers on individual hardiness.

There’s some attention placed on our personal webs and bubbles of support, but the literature is mainly focused on developing inner states of mind and strength that enable us to roll with the punches, weather storms and find our way back to well-being. There’s some excellent advice out there about building personal capacity to respond to what’s going on around us, from the inside out.

I tend to come to the idea of resilience, instead, from the outside in.

No matter how much of a lone wolf any of us may consider ourselves, or how individually healthy, our survival and well-being are tied up with so many others around us. Every individual, organization and community is a living system nested within larger systems and networks. Our resilience is necessarily interdependent, inextricably so.

All together now. All together now. All together now. All together now.... The Beatles

Cascading Interdependence

I began to see the challenge of resilience this way while studying International Relations in graduate school before the turn of the millennium. The theoretical focus at that time was on the power relations of nation states within global systems. One particular professor I heard speak when he visited campus, Dr. James Rosenau of George Washington University, spun a phrase so descriptive that it has never left me. He said that nations co-exist in a state of “cascading, complex, asymmetrical interdependence.”  He provided many examples,  but the one that most caught my attention looked at the relationship between the US and Mexico, where, given our long shared border, what happens in one nation continually impacts the other, but not necessarily in equal measure.

The US has cast a large shadow over Mexico for more than a century as the wealthier, more heavily armed, more globally powerful neighbor. At times, the US has been too close for Mexico’s comfort. Porfirio Diaz, Mexican president/dictator at the turn of the twentieth century, coined an often-quoted phrase, “Poor Mexico, so far from god, so close to the United States.” But things change. In recent years, the US has grappled with increasing drug trafficking and immigration through Mexico and a shifting balance of power.

The US, global alpha dog all during my lifetime, is increasingly vulnerable to mutual dependencies and the growing power and swagger of other nations and regions. As a nation in a shifting global system, we are constantly renegotiating our place and space, our safety, access, protection and status.  We are interdependent, which makes everything vulnerable: our families, companies, organizations, food and transportation, financial structures and ecosystems.  No matter how much sway a country or system holds over another, the mutual interdependence and interconnection are still there.

Deep Diversity Nested in Deep Interdependence

The way nations behave toward one another strengthens or weakens internal systems. It strengthens or weakens our resilience. On a community level, we can mandate social distancing but not independence from one another. I can opt out of being neighborly toward the people who live right around me, but I can’t opt out of belonging to the interconnected human and natural systems operating just outside my door. Many of us resist the idea that what we do deeply impacts others and vice versa. We want the independence to pursue our own interests and optimize our own well-being without restriction. But things change.

2020 has presented us the terrifying and invigorating evidence that we are all in this global dance together now, even though we’ve not been a particularly close family up to now. We belong whether we want to or not, and that belonging forms the larger nest of our ‘resilience capacity.’ 

We have each been enrolled in graduate level courses this year on the evolving rules of resilience, on the costs of fouling our nests. The professors teaching this semester’s courses are a powerful morphing virus, divisive elections, recurring super hurricanes headed our way, a stock market that pretends to know more than it does about what’s good for a globally interconnected economy, and a thermometer that this summer recorded the hottest temperatures on record in the Arctic. We are all impacted, personally and collectively.

Can resilience be contagious, like COVID? I think and hope so.  Can we pass it from one to another, one candle lighting the next one, one supply chain hooking up to another, reimagined systems connecting into new forms? It’s supremely complex and maddeningly simple: I flourish only if you flourish.  I am resilient only if you are, somewhat asymmetrically, of course, for now. It’s inescapable.

All together now.

Interconnected resilience is a big topic.  We’ll continue this conversation about connected impacts from time to time.  Stay tuned for the next installments:

Part Two: Reimagining Systems of Resilience: Are we designed for this?
Part Three: Remaking Organizational Resilience: Building Systems for the Unimagined

Sallie Lee is a consultant with Continuum. She has served as a thinking partner, strategist and facilitator for a global client base.