Learning from 9/11: The Importance of Resilience

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The country stood frozen in horror as news of the terrorist attacks spread across the airwaves. First responders leapt into action, but for many of us, the experience was surreal, leaving us moving in slow motion for days as the reality began to settle into our minds and spirits. This was most poignantly illustrated by the abrupt halt in air traffic, paralleling the standstill of our routines. After four or five days, an occasional jet could be heard flying overhead once again. Eventually, routine air traffic was restored until, finally, we no longer gave thought to the sound of jets flying overhead.


Now, the 9/11 Memorial has been dedicated to commemorate the day, its tragic losses and the heroic actions of first responders, citizens, cities, and a country.

In the aftermath of the attacks, we as Americans have learned that we can recover from loss—loss of loved ones, loss of safety and emotional security, loss of a sense of permanence and power, loss of business continuity, property and financial footing. Not easily… but we can. We have learned that one of the most consequential characteristics of a community’s ability to recover is resilience—the ability to adapt.

Resilience is both a personal characteristic and an organizational, communal characteristic. As leaders within our organizations, we have an opportunity to model, teach, and promote the development of resilience in the people and departments we manage. As has been demonstrated in the remarkable stories of heroism, recovery, and triumph from 9/11, resilience encompasses a spectrum of skills. These can be learned and developed, both individually and within a community.

What is Resilience?

Resilience can be described as the ability to deal with stressful situations and recover without breaking. It’s getting knocked down but not staying down. It’s being able to adapt to challenging circumstances by using internal coping skills and growing as a result of the challenges.

Resilient people:

  • don’t “sweat the small stuff”
  • look for opportunities in their problems
  • perform well under pressure
  • don’t succumb to a victim mentality
  • tap into their internal resources and strengths to deal with the challenges
  • expect to learn and grow from the challenges
  • assess where they have the ability to affect outcomes and focus their efforts there

Resilience is not:

  • just-shake-it-off indifference to big problems
  • suppressing memory of or denying the past, its traumas, hardships and effects on our present state
  • psychological invincibility
  • stoicism; emotionless management of unfortunate events

Interestingly, resilience is developed in the face of adversity. When individual, community or societal existence is unchallenged and relatively easy, human nature tends to forget the skills of resilience, perhaps from disuse.

The disaster of 9/11 reminds us that the skills of resilience must continue to be exercised, taught and instilled. We cannot predict what adversity we may encounter tomorrow, but resilience protects us from breaking in its face and allows us to bounce back.

Why Resilience is Important Today

Since 9/11, the United States has experienced numerous disasters and socio-economic stressors: hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorist threats, increased community violence, involvement in foreign wars, massive failures of banking and financial institutions, wild swings in the stock market, loss of economic security, and more. Businesses and non-profit organizations alike have not escaped the impact of the economic downturn, resulting in layoffs and being forced to do more with less for those employees who remain. Organizations must perform at increasingly higher levels of productivity, creativity and financial return on investment in order to remain viable in today’s marketplace.

Employees need the skills to deal with the challenges posed by the current socio-economic climate, to continue to perform well as a team, to maintain a healthy balance of work and life, to protect their own health and wellbeing, and rise to the call of increased productivity. The increased stressors today require that employees use the skills of resilience to navigate the uncertainties, pressures and stressors of our post-9/11 world.

Resilience Begins with YOU

Resilience has been well researched in the past decade. We have learned much about promoting resilience in our organizations and capitalizing on the community of business to enhance employee resilience.

Joel Bennett, Ph.D., president of OWLS–Organizational Wellness & Learning Systems, states that resilience is the result of promoting a culture of health within an organization. Loosely interpreted, a culture of health is achieved by:

  1. top-down support (from leadership)
  2. bottom-up activity (empowering employees to participate and contribute in wellness committees and act within their spheres of influence)
  3. group cohesion (encouraging community among employees so that resilience permeates the organization)

The first, most important, key to successful resilience training is top-down support. Resilience starts with you, the manager, the leader.

Take a moment to look back at the qualities of resilience on page 1 of this article. How many of these describe you? Are your employees seeing some these qualities in your interactions with them? No one has escaped today’s stressors unscathed, and it is possible that your morale has taken a beating. Assess how you are doing.

If you need help reframing your challenges so that you can bend and bounce back without breaking, tap into the resources available to you for help: your friends and family, your doctor, your EAP, your HR department, professional development, spiritual practice and other avenues.

Then examine what message you convey to your team on a daily basis. As a leader, the message you live sets the tone for your team. Of all the methods of leadership—directing, managing, disciplining, goal-setting, coordinating, empowering, etc.—modeling is by far the most powerful. Any message you might attempt to convey to your team is lost if you are not living it yourself.

Personal Assistance Services (PAS) and its sister company, Human Resource Services, Inc., provide management consultation services to assist you in strengthening your leadership and communication skills, and can suggest ways to address issues of resilience and team-building.

Promoting Resilience in Your Organization

As an initiative, promoting resilience in your organization will overlap with other areas of Human Resource management and development: wellness, health and welfare, life balance, productivity, engagement, and retention.

Joel Bennett proposes five primary components of resilience (the 5 C’s):

  1. Centering
  2. Confidence
  3. Commitment
  4. Community
  5. Compassion

Each of these components has both an individual and a communal aspect and can be developed within your organization through training, modeling and cultural integration.

In the next PAS-It-On article, we will look at these components in more detail and offer suggestions on how these can be integrated into your organizational culture. Resilience training can be coordinated with other initiatives to enhance employee productivity, safety, engagement and retention.


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