Creative Resilience: a call to action for leadership in an age of discontinuity
by Esther Clark

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“A well-led enterprise can learn to survive deep blows and still surge forward,” states HBR’s Julia Kirby in her description of the theme for the 2023 Global Peter Drucker Forum, “Creative Resilience: Leading in an Age of Discontinuity”. Learning, survival, and forward movement are fundamental elements of well-led organisations. In fact, when I look back on challenges I have faced as an international leader, these elements take on new life and meaning. They are encapsulated in the term “creative resilience” because they are key to forward-thinking enterprises and to bringing together people and ideas to solve problems. 

How? By building capacity and accessing resources in new and better ways. Creative resilience represents the leitmotif of societies that want more, do more, and create more change and understanding. Peter Drucker’s management theories highlight the importance of organisations being human centred and connecting work and profits with purpose; and creative resilience makes these theories real through capacity building as well as representing a call to action for leaders. In other words, constructing “a new set of reflexes at every level of the organisation, and throughout its ecosystem of suppliers, customers, and other partners” encourages us to spring into action and leaders to use creativity to build resilience in the face of discontinuity. And the best way for me to illustrate this is to look at international and cross-cultural projects that I have been involved with and how they manifest elements of learning, survival, and forward movement.

Learning from the headwinds

We took four weeks to cross the Tasman Sea on our 111-foot schooner from Australia to New Zealand. What should have been a short and easy crossing was not, but it wasn’t the long ocean crossings that challenged us or built capacity – it was the unexpected headwinds that challenged us to do things differently, to learn new ways to keep moving forward: in short, to become creatively resilient. We rationed water, food, and fuel as we battled adverse weather; winds coming directly at us forced us to chart a zigzag course to our destination. Like the deep blows that build creative resilience in organisations, there were moments of angst, confusion, boredom, and impatience that led to something more important: a renewed sense of humility and of community that meant putting others – “the good of the ship” – before our own interests. 

Business models, like ships, can also benefit from strong winds and following seas in the form of external factors, shifts in consumer behaviour and knitting together of ecosystems leading to accelerated growth. The invisible yet powerful non-linear forces of the Roaring Forties can make or break a trip, a ship, and a crew. Decades ago, Drucker wrote that “no institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organised in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.” Organisations – as well as sailing ships – led by human beings in a mission that inspires action, collaboration and problem solving are what’s needed when faced with adversity (and opportunity!) in times of disruption. 

Resilience as capacity building

A greenfield airport project in Quito, Ecuador that I was involved with furnishes a good demonstration of creative resilience as capacity building. Early in my career I had the opportunity to project manage the design, construction, and commissioning of Ecuador’s new international airport – a massive public private partnership between Canada and Ecuador with many strategic players including Brazilian construction and concession partners as well as multilateral financial institutions and investors. 

An ecosystem providing ample opportunities for connections and capacity-building across time, space, and stakeholders, the airport project started off with the movement of 8,500,000 m3 of earth. Dust, dreams, and milestones gave way to design, construction and delivery of runway, terminal building, control tower, and ancillary buildings, as well as water and power lines for airport and surrounding communities. Our onsite plant produced and placed 470,000 tons of asphalt and 115K m3 of concrete. We installed 6K tons of reinforcing and 6K tons of structural steel. What we didn’t expect were the reflexes we had to develop that were not always construction related – reflexes to cope with changing demands, renegotiation of project contracts and changing geophysical and political landscapes. It required creativity and underscored a fundamental element to a successful project: connection. 

A forward-looking endeavour brings together skills, creativity, and capability. Projects need leadership to focus and connect the efforts of disparate interests so that they buy into a common idea of success and build new capacity. Intrepid project partners, visionary boards of directors, astute investors, bold entrepreneurs, architects, activists, environmentalists, civil engineers, MBAs, artists and artisans, community leaders, journalists, families, government authorities, multilateral agencies may all have a vested interest in seeing an airport, or any form of organisation, succeed, but they need a connection point. 

A call to action

Building a greenfield airport and beating headwinds may not be typical management thinking examples, but this is the creative element in creative resilience. To quote Steven Bartlett in his Diary of a CEO podcast, “we are incredibly multifaceted, uniquely complex, ever evolving beings. We’re constructed from 7 billion atoms, 37 trillion cells and millions of intimate individual experiences, viewing the world through two unique eyes with one completely individual perspective.” 

Seemingly disparate goals? Unexpected connections? That’s what creativity and innovation is all about, and creative resilience can help ensure that we lead with heart and meaning in an age of discontinuity. The call to action is to remove the boxes we have inherited and look for synergies and connections. As Tim Brown, co-chair of IDEO, put it: “Creativity is essential to resilience – it brings the new and unexpected ideas so necessary in times of disruption.”

About the author:

Esther Clark (@ClarkEsther) is Executive Director of Marketing at Inspired Education Online Schools and has 15 years’ experience advising and serving on corporate boards. She is a contributor to Forbes, America Economia, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) and a former Peter Drucker Global Challenge winner.

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