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“Chaotic” is a benign description of today’s business environment. The pressures and challenges confronting executives trying to navigate this landscape were unthinkable mere months ago. And yet – we are struck by stories of innovation and resilience, both individual and organizational:

  • Educators across the planet have raced to transform the classroom experience into a virtual one. Just as important, though, are their quiet efforts to help students feel cared about in a time of great uncertainty. One of our colleagues has been awed by the heroics of her daughter’s high school principal. He has instituted daily Instagram messages, more formal weekly outreaches, a running survey to assess well-being, and personally delivered yard signs and care packages to all graduating seniors.
  • While many restaurants have embraced delivery and curbside service, Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan is completely rethinking its business model. Named the world’s #1 restaurant in 2017, COVID-19 led to closure and reinvention as a “commissary kitchen…producing almost 3,000 meals a day to feed hungry people around the city.” While the jury is still out on its future, its owner is determined to do things differently going forward: “It’s like a blank canvas right now; we would need to redefine what luxury means [and] it will also be an opportunity to continue to feed people who don’t have anything.”
  • Ampersand clients: Some are flourishing, yet many find themselves facing very difficult decisions, making tough calls to survive in the near-term while also hoping not to constrain long-term growth. We are especially impressed with partner organizations that have rapidly pivoted entire operations, shifting manufacturing away from hard-hit sectors like automotive to support needed efforts in healthcare and construction.

When thinking about creating opportunity amid challenge, two points from a classic HBR article (2002) appear particularly salient for leaders today:

  1. Embrace reality. Many people confuse “optimism” with “resilience.” But the author of “How Resilience Works” (Coutu) argues that rose-colored glasses get in the way of the critical thinking and innovation that are required to move forward in changed circumstances – that people and organizations freeze, delaying decisions in the hope of “getting back to normal soon.” In her words, “when we truly stare down reality, we prepare ourselves to act in ways that allow us to endure and survive extraordinary hardship.”
  2. Meaning matters. In a particularly striking example, Viktor Frankl, the famed Austrian psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, attributed his survival to his vision for life beyond Auschwitz – essentially “rising above the sufferings of the moment” because of the contributions he was determined to make to others when (not if) he was released. Organizations, too, are more resilient and innovative when they have robust values and purpose – a strong sense of what they stand for. Values and purpose provide both the “port in the storm” as well as “the reason for carrying on” in the midst of tribulation.

And of course, it falls to the leader to carry the flag for both – to insist on facing reality and to reinforce what the organization stands for. Whether it’s a school principal creatively nurturing a caring environment virtually, a celebrity chef feeding the masses, or CEOs pivoting their organizations to deliver the goods in a new way, the examples above inspire us and epitomize both.