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What Faith can Teach us about Resilient Leaders

  • Chris Seiple
  • February 19, 2014

This blog post originally appeared on the World Economic Forum blog.

The unpredictable impact of globalization can besiege individuals and institutions alike, creating the potential for confusion, failure – and worse. As the geographer Halford Mackinder told the Royal Geographical Society as long ago as 1904, we live in a world where “every explosion of social forces … will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence”.

His words ring true today, at a time when we are experiencing a deepening distrust of our leaders – particularly those in government and business. Not surprisingly, “resiliency” has become a buzzword in our times. There are many definitions of the word, but here is mine: resiliency is the capacity to rebound from shocks and stresses, whether natural or man-made, in an appropriate and timely manner. Accordingly, the ability to pre-empt and manage such risks is at a premium.

The problem with resiliency metrics, however, is that they are inevitably limited to what is quantifiable, from physical infrastructure to the workings of supply chains. While the quantitative is important, it is not effective unless it rests on the qualitative: otherwise we risk concentrating on the trees and ignoring the forest. Globalization requires not so much a codification of resiliency as a culture of resiliency.

To navigate the global forest, a two-point compass guides the way. The first point reminds the individual/institution of who they are (the unchanging values against which they hold themselves accountable), and the second indicates where they are going (the unchanging influence/impact that they seek).

But at the head of the whole process are the leaders, both of businesses and governments. It is up to them to embody the culture of resiliency and manage risk in an ever-changing world. It is they who must establish mutual respect and reliance with every person on the team, at every level.

Training and education is imperative. More important still is the quality of the teaching. Classes that focus on team culture and critical thinking – anchored in mutual respect and reliance – reinforce a common trust. This trust results in greater efficiency and authenticity, thanks to staff who believe in their leadership, organization and product.

There also needs to be a holistic approach, from entry level to boardroom. A one-off class on gender parity might provide an organization with legal protection, but it has no enduring impact unless it takes place in a larger context of trust, accountability and transparency. Put differently, neither product nor process can survive unless leaders encourage an environment of mutual respect and reliance.

It comes down to the Golden Rule at the foundation of every faith: the ethic of reciprocity. If this ethic can be cultivated into an organizational culture that allows for different points of moral departure, then the organization and the people it serves will be flexible, no matter the shocks and stresses that come. The same is true for governments and countries.

Put one last way: in business, war and life, systems fail. The sea wall will yield, the earthquake-proof building will crumble and the early-warning system will break. Precisely at that point, leaders must ask: how will we continue? What will help us resist and rebound?

The answer lies in the creation of a common purpose and culture, one that links shared values and bridges differences. A pattern of mutual respect and reliance is the difference between the capacity to learn from failure and the incapacity to continue because failure is catastrophic.

Shock and stress are inevitable. Resiliency is not. Leaders need to know who they are and where they are going. If they do, they can create a culture of critical thinking that doesn’t merely contain risk, but sustains people and platforms through risk, resulting in greater influence and impact.

About Chris Seiple

Chris Seiple is Principal Advisor for Templeton Religion Trust’s Covenantal Pluralism Initiative, and President Emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement. He is widely known and sought after for his decades of experience and expertise regarding issues at the intersection of geopolitics, US foreign policy, Asia, conflict resolution, human rights, and religion. He earned his Ph.D. in International Relations at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. His books include The Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement (Routledge 2023), co-edited with Dennis R. Hoover.

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