Trial by Fire: The Lessons of Resilience for MBAs

August 14, 2018

By John Stayton
Executive Director of Graduate & Executive Programs
School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University

Yes, it was a rough fall semester for our university. Right in the middle of it, devastating fires traumatized our community. SSU students, faculty, staff and administrators lost their homes, including President Judy Sakaki. Campus closed for nine days, and after we reopened it was hard to focus for weeks on anything except the impact of the fires.
Fortunately, a lot of that focus was on the inspiring stories of first responders, ordinary citizens, and organizations that stepped up to save lives, support the displaced, prevent further destruction, and unite the community. The web of support in our North Bay region for responding to and recovering from a disaster strengthened, building confidence that our region will emerge from this disaster with greater resilience. What lessons can those of us with MBAs take from this experience?
Our organizations, small and large, will face shocks in the coming years. Many will be driven by climate change, which is unleashing more extreme weather events, resulting in droughts, floods and fires. Other shocks will be driven by disruptive technologies and rapidly changing markets. Political factors, including wars and radical policy changes, will also cause crises. Organizations need to build the capacity for resilience if they are going to survive and thrive during these turbulent times.
Resilience has been a popular concept in business management publications for decades, ranging from the May 2002 HBR article "How Resilience Works" by Diane Coutu to the bestselling "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy" (Knopf), by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, released earlier this year. But I believe that the management literature is under-emphasizing a key quality to resilience in the face of shocks that emerged during our North Bay fires: shared responsibility for the community. For businesses, "community" includes both within the organization and external to the organization.
Coutu stresses the importance to building resilience of taking a clear-eyed, pragmatic view of the threats facing an organization. The grassroots Transition Network movement ( is composed of local community networks who have taken a hard look at the impacts of climate change and resource depletion, and developed initiatives to ensure resilience. Founded in the UK in 2006, Transition communities can now be found in over 50 countries, including more than 160 registered Transition initiatives in the US ( Their premise is that the way to build resilience is through unleashing the creative energy in a community to prepare for coming shocks, developing more connected, healthy and joyful communities in the process. Similarly, businesses can foster internal communities that can respond creatively, energetically and proactively to disruptions that will inevitably emerge.
Here in our Graduate & Executive Programs Office, we have four priorities that guide our activities. Our highest priority is "building community", which exists on multiple levels: within our office and School, with our students and alumni, and with our wider community outside of the University. One of the many benefits of building a vibrant MBA community is the creation of a support network for our students and alumni to respond to individual and community crises. We are grateful that you are part of this community.