The Bible tells the story of Joseph who forecasted periods of draught for the kingdom of Egypt and advised the pharaoh to build large granaries to store sufficient feedstock for the people.  In the middle ages, kings anticipated armed conflict and protected themselves by constructing castles with thick walls and moats, strong enough to survive to the present day. Change and misfortune can be predicted and one can take protective measures to minimize their impact by learning resilience.


Protective measures are useless against unexpected changes or misfortunes. Granaries did not protect the pharaoh against plagues; castles did not protect kings against cannons. Modern adulthood is rife with unexpected situations: parents realize they cannot shield their children from whatever might happen.  Employees do not know whether their jobs will continue to exist.  Enterprises face unexpected competitor moves and disruptive technology.  Cities face unexpected inflows of people, political upheaval and economic crises. We live in uncertain times where a lot of unexpected things can–and do–happen.


Unexpected change or misfortune can be overcome through resilience: the ability to recover quickly from trouble and to bounce back.


In the 1974 boxing match “Rumble in the Jungle”, heavyweight champion Mohammed Ali fought against George Foreman, a master in raw physical power. From the second round, Ali began to lean on the ropes and cover up, letting Foreman punch him on the arms and body while protecting his head. Foreman was expending his energy throwing punches, which was a key part of Ali's "rope-a-dope" tactic. When the two fighters were locked in clinches, Ali taunted Foreman, telling him to throw more punches, and an enraged Foreman responded by giving him his all.


After several rounds, Foreman began to tire. As the fight drew into the eighth round, Foreman's punching and defense became ineffective as the strain of throwing so many wild shots took its toll. Ali landed several right hooks over Foreman's jab, followed by a five-punch combination, culminating in a left hook that brought Foreman's head up into position and a hard right straight to the face that brought Foreman to his knees. He eventually rose at count of nine, but referee Zack Clayton stopped the bout with two seconds remaining in the round.


Footage of the Zaire fight shows Foreman striking Ali with hundreds of thunderous blows, many blocked, but many others getting through. Foreman mostly struck to the sides and kidney region, but also landed some vicious shots to the head, clearly with little effect.

Unexpected change or misfortune can be overcome through resilience: the ability to recover quickly from trouble and to bounce back. Click To Tweet

Understanding resilience

Think of the human body as it heals from the impact of an illness, or a physical injury.  Think of citizens recovering from natural disasters. Think of a country recovering from a war or a recession. Think of the unbreakable diamond, which has formed under the constant pressure of rocks. In describing resilience, we draw from rich analogies.

To find this ability we looked closely at ways to put these into practice as an eternal student, an entrepreneur and, most importantly, a leader:

1. Readiness

  • Sleep with one eye open. Unexpected change and misfortune does not mean one cannot make any preparations. It pays to have all sensory systems on: keep a close watch on market dynamics, and your vigilance on customer behavior. Have a detailed operational dashboard that tracks the quality of all processes. Be consistently aware of employee motivation and performance.  Being asleep at the wheel anticipates disaster.
  • Feel the change in the air. Prudent leaders develop deep understanding of their industry and markets, but never at the expense of giving an ear to intuition. Try to fine-tune your sense of possible disruption, keeping in mind that animals can sense natural disasters as they are about to hit.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned. Redundancy, buffers, slack and fallbacks: they are just inefficiencies in a controlled, predictable world, but can prove incredibly valuable when issues emerge by surprise. Tax advisors might recommend taking substantial debt on board to maximize tax reduction and return on equity. Experienced entrepreneurs know the value of a clean balance sheet when the company suffers a downturn and they keep their enterprise in good general health, with buffer capacity and controlled growth so that a sneeze along the way won’t signal inevitable death.
  • Better a neighbor nearby than a brother far away. By investing in genuine relationships, by sharing in good fortune, by creating opportunities for all and maintaining collaboration with others, one nurtures the social capital that will become critically valuable if disaster should strike. Depending on the goodwill of those around you, you will create relationships that will only strengthen in times of need.
  • Let’s cut our losses. Confinement is a powerful way to reduce the impact of misfortune. And so is a diverse portfolio of activities as never everything gets hit at the same time. An enterprise that runs its entire operations on one integrated IT system is very vulnerable. So is an enterprise with one production facility or with one product line or with one geographic market of sales. For these enterprises it is very difficult or even impossible to isolate a problem and cut it loose from the rest of the enterprise. So in case of disaster the ship can sink with everyone on it.
Try to fine-tune your sense of disruption by developing a deep understanding of your industry and markets. Click To Tweet


  • When the going gets tough the tough get going. Resilience is first of all about mental strength: the ability of an individual, group of people or organization to not lose spirit under duress and setback but to remain motivated, upbeat and confident. Those that give up do tend to lose out, those that decide to get back do regain the lead. Does your organization, as Dutch footballer Johan Cruijff tried to explain, “see every disadvantage as an advantage”?
  • Never waste a good crisis. Resilience means controlling your fears and seeing ways to divert the impact of the trouble. It is the skill of the Judoka that uses the forward move of her opponent to pull her off-balance. Innovative entrepreneurs might even reframe a setback into an opportunity: an opportunity to make a clean ship, to change course, to change products, pricing or distribution, to do something inspirational that wins customers’ hearts. In many industries, new innovative companies and leaders emerge during an economic downturn.
  • Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see. Resilience comes with a high degree of suppleness, elegance and grace: the qualities of a dancer. The surprise punch needs to be returned swiftly and effortlessly in the beat of the moment. A classic case is how to deal as a producer with a product which causes accidents, e.g., a car with a faulty airbag like Toyota recently experienced.  The only smart way is to immediately take full responsibility, recall suspect cars, apologize and pay for all damage done.
  • Reculer pour mieux sauter. The French proverb translates as to give way a little in order to take up a stronger position. The essence of resilience is to put short-term considerations within longer-term contexts. You could lower your prices to maintain market share and ruin your brand positioning or weather the downturn and then recoup market share with your brand fully in tact.

Ultimately, resilience is about preparing the body to receive blows from every angle and knowing how to respond once they start coming. It’s about training yourself to fall over and over again until you can bounce back up once the drought arrives, the market starts to collapse, or you are about to receive the greatest punch of all time to the face.

To discover tactics to become more resilient, join the upcoming THNK Executive Leadership Program.