The 6th R: Keeping the Rubber Band Supple

Rubber bands break for three reasons. When they are new, they break because of a manufacturing flaw. When extreme stress exceeds their capacity for further expansion, they snap. Old rubber bands often dry out and become brittle, disintegrating at the slightest touch.

In looking at the Sixth R, we need to examine what exactly “Resilience” means – to a person, to an organization, to the supply chain.

And we need to keep in mind how old rubber bands break.

We can all close our eyes and picture people we know or have known whom we would characterize as being resilient. These are the people who we might compare to the old Timex watch commercials in which the watches would be subjected to all kinds of terrible physical stress, only to continue functioning at the highest level. In the words of the Timex pitchman, John Cameron Swayze, the watches, “Take a licking and keep on ticking!”

Examples abound of people who have been battered and buffeted by life’s storms, only to come back stronger than ever and triumph over their environment – folks such as Helen Keller, Ray Charles or Stephen Hawking represent some of the more famous examples of resilience.

But the most striking examples of a trait do not always represent the best definition of that trait. For every Helen Keller, there may be hundreds of folks who failed at a much lower level of stress or challenge. They snapped at 25 pounds of pressure, while Helen kept ticking on at thousands of pounds of pressure without missing a beat. Let’s say that Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking represent one end of the spectrum, while those who snapped at lower levels of stress represent the other end.

Somewhere in between are the everyday folks who learn how to roll with the punches and make their way through to the end. Their resilience represents taking the good with the bad and not taking things so seriously that they can destroy or break them. These folks are the exemplars of the term “resilience.”

Personally, I think resilience may be the most treasured of survival skills. I have seen examples of it in several people throughout my career, and every example is a better person than I for this reason: every single person I think of as being an example of resilience has seen things through at a single organization over a long period of time. My personal modus operandi has often been to find another alternative when things got to a point where true resilience was required.

Certain traits do not play well with resilience. Anger, for example, decreases the flexibility of our personal “rubber bands,” as does personal doubt and fear. Resilient people do not react. They pause and consider issues and then choose if and when to respond.

Examples of the resilient people I have known over the years include Robert Collier and Brian Keeley at Baptist Health of South Florida; Debbie McCarty at Mercy Medical Center in Canton, Ohio; and Will Mest at Lehigh Valley Health Network in Allentown, Pa. All three are different in many ways, but all demonstrate the tenets of resilience.

Robert Collier was my distribution supervisor at Baptist Health in South Florida in the 1970s and 80s. He was an African American who grew up in the South during the heart of the Jim Crow era. He worked at Baptist for more than 30 years, and while I was there (14 years), he never missed a single day of work. I cannot even begin to imagine the challenges he faced in his life, but at work he was always cheerful, competent and eager to serve. I never saw him complain (and I know there were times when he was probably overwhelmed with his responsibilities, both at work and at home), and his work performance was always excellent.

Brian Keeley came from the other end of the opportunity spectrum. He was a young white guy with a degree from George Washington University when I first met him back in 1969, and his star was rising at meteoric proportions. He was Baptist’s first administrative resident, and he hung in there from 1969 to 1988 when he became the organization’s third CEO, a post he retains today. As quiet and unassuming as Collier was, Brian was totally the opposite – outgoing and extremely comfortable in the limelight. Folks said that Brian got the CEO job because he was then CEO Ernie Nott’s handpicked successor. That may have been true, but in the words of my friend Walter Riley King (B.B. King’s nephew and leader of the band), “I may have gotten into the band because I was B.B.’s nephew, but if I couldn’t play, I would have been gone years ago.” So it was with Brian. His resilience in an ever-changing environment has seen him through for 26 years.

Debbie McCarty and Will Mest have both worked with their organizations through tumult, triumph and tragedy. Both have seen leaders come and go, and have quietly (well, not so quietly in Debbie’s case) performed their tasks at the highest level. Both can attribute at least part of their long-term success to their ability to be resilient.

Part of being resilient is not being self-consumed. A person, department or organization that is not self-consumed can take the broader, less personal perspective. There is an old saying that, “When someone doesn’t answer the phone, it just means that they didn’t answer the phone.” The self-consumed person, department or organization often adds meaning to such events – meaning that inevitably adds stress, exacerbates situations and inhibits resilience. These added (and very often incorrect) interpretations detract from and reduce operational performance.

It would be easy to say that resilient leaders create resilient departments and organizations, but with senior leadership changing chairs about every five years (with the exception of folks like Brian Keeley), I would submit that resilient workers provide the best underpinning for a resilient department and/or organization. For every single Brian Keeley, there are probably hundreds of Robert Colliers, Debbie McCartys and Will Mests.

Thank God for the folks who do the work!

One final thought about the old rubber band:

As people and organizations grow older, they face the danger of getting set in their ways or not exercising their tools enough to stay in the game. This brings with it reduced elasticity of mind, body and spirit and becomes a direct threat to resilience.

I would offer this advice: Keep up with things; stay involved; don’t take things personally. Listen to others more than you preach to them. Remember the old country song about the willow, and be strong enough to bend.
Your resilience will see you through.

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