A call for resiliency and dynamism

Dov Seidman
Founder and Chairman, LRN and The HOW Institute for Society
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From the moment that the World Economic Forum announced its 2013 theme – “Resilient Dynamism” – the Twitterverse was electrified. Some pondered the theme’s meaning. “Anybody know what that means?” While others went for straight out mockery – “I’ve decided to name my first child Resilient Dynamism”!

Throughout the conference, which I attended, the murmuring persisted. But as you would expect, given the level of participants, the conversation was deeper than 140 characters. Some levied the criticism that “resilience” sends us straight back to the tactical, short-term thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. That the world needs to focus on long-term solutions and that it’s not helpful to look backwards, since “resilience” is obviously a reference to the inherent strength of the global economy’s ability to bounce back.

At best, these are snarky comments and we can write them off to today’s need to be quick and clever on social media. But the more troubling dimension is that they are also straw man arguments that show a lack of understanding. The critics are railing against something that no one’s actually calling for. If understood and internalized properly, resilient dynamism points us squarely in the direction we must move to embody the new kind of leadership and thinking our volatile world cries out for.

Let’s start where all good arguments do: The OED. The Oxford English Dictionary defines resilience as “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity”. Simply put, “a return to form”.

But what is form? If a “return to form” meant a continuation of backward-looking regulation, a cycle of crisis-regulation-loopholes-crisis-regulation-loopholes like we have seen post-Sarbanes Oxley and post-Dodd-Frank, a propensity to create more check boxes for ethics and compliance departments, then the critics would have a point. I don’t want more of that futile nonsense, either.

But, as World Economic Forum Chairman Executive Klaus Schwab smartly put it, “more of the same” is very different from “return to form.” So at the opening of the Annual Meeting 2013 in Davos, he called for leaders to go beyond the constant demands of “crisis management”. Elsewhere, Schwab has said: “In an age when social networks are enabling greater participation and transparency, companies will only be able to achieve economic success if they can generate long-term benefits not just for their shareholders, but also for the common good.”

Schwab’s call to action, to a true return to form, is brilliant and much needed. He’s asking us to go back to an era when we all understood the strong link between moral philosophy and economics – far from the deformed capitalism that has become the status quo. After all, The Wealth of Nations, a book that serves as the intellectual platform for capitalism, lays out how markets should be organized and how people should behave in such markets. The book’s author, Adam Smith, was not an economist, as many believe, but a philosopher (Smith was Chairman of the Moral Philosophy Department at Glasgow University when he wrote the book).

Like other philosophers, Smith attempted to create a new framework for understanding the world, addressing how we as humans seek alignment in our relationships and among competing interests. The philosophical approach Smith pursued has faded from use, yet as the World Economic Forum has rightly pointed out, a “return to form” is more relevant than ever in light of the crises our organizations and countries face. Indeed, more than “faded from view”, Smith has been oversimplified as the creator of modern-day laissez-faire capitalism. But, he did not believe than an “invisible hand” would create a just and moral universe.

The second part of the theme, “dynamism,” must of necessity go hand-in-hand with moral foundations.  To revert to the dictionary again, dynamism means “a theory that all phenomena (as matter or motion) can be explained as manifestations of force”. But that force can have a positive or negative impact on the world. Without moral frameworks in place, you can get as many chaotic dynamics as productive and constructive ones. Dynamism on its own doesn’t necessarily represent progress of the kind we need.

So when you look at the entire phrase, “Resilient Dynamism”, it’s a powerful statement that speaks to systems that are flexible enough to accomplish their goals. But it’s not perfect.

I would propose a slight improvement to the call for “Resilient Dynamism”. To truly move in an unambiguously positive direction, let’s turn to the dictionary one last time. Let’s move from viewing this concept as an adverb modifying a noun to seeing two nouns, coming together. Let’s foster “resiliency” and “dynamism” or growth, simultaneously.

Given the volatile and uncertain nature of the world, organizations need to create and protect value simultaneously. It’s not that “resilient dynamism” is better than inelastic dynamism or laissez-faire dynamism. It’s that they must proceed as partners in growth and prosperity.

And we can’t think of resiliency as something that’s required on occasion. Today, it’s a state of being. We don’t have 10-year cycles so we have to escape the mindset that now is the time to pull down our sails, batten down the hatches, wait out the storm and then set sail when economic conditions improve. Storms are hitting us every 10 weeks, and likely will continue to do so. We need to learn – for the first time – to sail with sails up in a storm. We need to build the institutional and individual capacity for simultaneous resiliency and growth.

Viewed this way, resiliency and growth reinforce and sustain one another, and will lead to the innovation, financial performance and other outcomes we seek.

In fairness to those who criticized the theme of “Resilient Dynamism”, its call to return to our roots could have been strengthened with this slight modification to “Resiliency and Dynamism”. That would have helped foster a true, broad understanding of the theme; a parallel strategy for the future.

Author: Dov Seidman is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of LRN and Author of “HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything”, he also participated in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos 2013

Image: Delegates mingle at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos 2013 REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

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