How to bounce back like a Russian ballet dancer

Dancers of Cuba national ballet perform
Resilience must be pre-emptive, not reactive (Source: Getty)

St Petersburg, Russia is home to the world famous Kirov Ballet company. Over 270 years since its foundation, the existence of the Kirov has been repeatedly threatened, by – among other things – the Russian Revolution, the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Each time its survival has been called into question, however, it has emerged stronger than before, continuing to produce world-class dancers. The Kirov has developed resilience as a core capability and today the institution is thriving still.

Our research into high-performance powerhouse organisations demonstrates that resilience is always a critical capability. Resilience is often defined as the ability to recover from setbacks. However, a key characteristic of resilient organisations is that they minimise the number and impact of setbacks that occur in the first place – by anticipating and mitigating risks well before they happen.

Our research points to four key enablers of resilient organisations.

1. Focus on driving forward (versus bouncing back)

History has many stories of great institutions that were blindsided by events which led to their downfall. Hubris, lack of discipline, and denial are among the primary reasons cited for this.

Resilient organisations guard against these dangers by investing in proactive, strategic risk management. They identify the biggest obstacles to winning and facilitate leadership in addressing (or avoiding) them ahead of time. They also track leading indicators – both internal and external – that give early warning of potential setbacks. By proactively managing risk and driving forward, resilient organisations have less need to bounce back.

2. When things go wrong, cope with it

Despite leaders’ best efforts, however, in any organisation things do go wrong. When this happens, the ability to recover rapidly is critical.

Resilient organisations develop tenacity, focus and strategic agility – they hold on to their target outcomes (for as long as they can) and adapt their plans to achieve the same outcomes in the changed circumstances. Rather than allowing setbacks to diminish their ambitions, they use them as prompts to recommit to their goals.

3. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

We find that the concept of positive psychology, originally thought up by psychologist Martin Seligman, is as relevant for organisations as for individuals. Organisations that can retain an optimistic outlook on the events that befall them tend to thrive better in adversity.

Resilient organisations deal quickly and decisively with the emotional consequences of setbacks, and move on to respond in positive ways. The Kirov has developed key institutional expertise in this area.

4. Make meaning matter

High-performance resilience is enabled by purpose. Dealing with adversity is much easier when the institution and its people share a visceral purpose. The Kirov is committed to being an iconic, enduring showcase for its city, its country and its art form, and the strength of this commitment has allowed it to emerge stronger and better after every challenge it has faced over the years.

The best organisations in the world tend also to be the most resilient. Yet resilience as a capability is often understated and hard to discern. Building it as a core, proactive capability should be high on the agenda of any leader.

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