What I Learned About Resilience at a Greek Funeral

I attended a funeral for an elderly Greek lady last month. She was 91. I didn’t know her but do know her family. Just before the service started, a lady walked past me, someone I hadn’t seen in over 30 years. We chatted afterwards at the cemetery while waiting for the casket to arrive. She pointed out an elderly woman walking up and down the hilly terrain with remarkable speed and ease. “That’s my mother-in-law, Maria”, she said. “She’s almost 96.” I don’t think I’ve ever met someone that age with such vigor and vitality. Later at the memorial lunch (“Makaria” in Greek), I was invited to sit with Maria and her family and I continued to marvel at her extraordinary youthfulness.

Just before the meal arrived, I left the table briefly to talk to a couple of friends standing by the door and asked them to guess Maria’s age. Turns out, one already knew her and agreed that she’s an extraordinary example of healthy and graceful aging. He added that he heard of some research suggesting that the very hardships and deprivation people of this generation underwent in their youth gave them the resilience to survive and live long lives. While I don’t profess to agree or disagree with that theory, I have seen it with members of my own family and others who went through the Second World War.

So now you’re probably thinking okay, another blog about that over-used, ubiquitous buzzword – resilience. Yes, I hear you, and I agree, the word is popping up in just about every discipline and context imaginable from business to psychology. Speaking of which, the American Psychology Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors…” (By the way, resilience is something you need a lot of if you’re self-employed!)

But it’s also an evolving business strategy, and with good reason. The world is becoming an increasingly threatening. Businesses are no less vulnerable to threats of cyber attacks, terrorist attacks, and extreme weather events than other entities. Consulting firms are developing frameworks for resilience management. Academics are writing textbooks on the subject. There’s even resilience thought-leadership and conferences and, I’ll wager, communities of practice.

Planning for business resiliency and ensuring continuity in the face of these threats is challenging but necessary. It means that businesses need to think about their planning and operations in a completely different way. In the business context, resilience is more about proactively evaluating and managing potential risks. It’s about examining the enterprise’s risk exposure to both internal and external threats and developing a strategic mindset of preparedness and responsiveness. It’s thinking through how the firm would maintain business continuity and protect its brand while recovering from a potential catastrophic event.

Another resilience context is planning and infrastructure investment, at all government levels, to withstand the threats posed by climate change. Whether one agrees with the climate change notion or not, it’s hard to deny that our weather has become more extreme in recent decades. One key adaptation strategy is to build infrastructure that can withstand stronger tornadoes, hurricanes and tropical storms, as well as factor “engineered resilience” into new building design.

Whether business or government, one thing that cannot be overlooked in resilience planning is the human element. In their book Organizational Resilience: Managing the Effects of Disruptive Events, authors James Leflar and Marc Siegal note that having perfect plans and procedures in place means little if people do not follow them. A culture of risk management – whereby people understand the value of addressing risk and the need to work together, along with established protocols – is essential to achieve a unified and coordinated approach to risk. Creating that culture is not always easy, especially in de-centralized organizations where people tend to work in silos. Clear, persuasive communication on why this is important to them, as well as time to let the message take hold, will go a long way to get employees on side.

Getting back to Maria and her generation, I doubt they had much time to think about resilience planning – they just lived day to day trying to survive. I surely hope I never have to go through what they did, but I will say this: if I manage to live to age 96, I want to be as resilient as my newly adopted Greek aunt – Thea Maria!