Bruce Daisley shares why it's time we rethought the concept of resilience
In his new book, podcaster, author and former Twitter exec Bruce Daisley takes aim at the way the US thinks about resilience. Ahead of his talk at CA Summit 2022, he tells Ryan Herman why, rather than focus on the individual, we should look to the collective culture of great teambuilders
4 August 2020. Bruce Daisley is in Beirut visiting his partner’s family when suddenly there’s a huge explosion. “We were a couple of miles away and it shook our building,” he recalls. “In the naivety of the moment, when it happened, and because all the windows were sucked in, your immediate thought was, ‘Was that a nuclear bomb?’”
It wasn’t a bomb, nuclear or otherwise. Rather, some ammonium nitrate, confiscated six years earlier and poorly stored in a Port of Beirut warehouse, had exploded, killing more than 200, injuring 7,000 and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless and billions of pounds in property damage.
“The whole place was filled with fear and anxiety,” says Daisley. “Then you see the coverage on the BBC or the New York Times and they talked about how everyone was ‘being resilient’. And you think to yourself, hang on, everyone here is saying, ‘Please can the world help us?’ Their economy has just collapsed and the world is looking back saying, ‘You’ll be okay, because you’re resilient.’”
At the start of 2020, Daisley quit his job as Twitter VP, EMEA, turning his attention instead to writing – he had already published his first book, The Joy of Work, a Sunday Times bestseller – and his new podcast, Eat Sleep Work Repeat, which soon reached number one in Apple’s Business Podcasts chart.
Before that extraordinary moment in Beirut, Daisley had already been exploring the idea of a book that would examine some of the myths around the concept of resilience, how it had become a ubiquitous buzzword and spawned its own industry. That book, Fortitude, his second, was released last month. “What you find [with resilience] is that the same research, or the same solutions, get quoted repeatedly,” he says. “And you think, well, that’s interesting, but does any of it actually work? And that’s where the book started.”
Strength in numbers
In a chapter titled “The Billion Dollar Resilience Industry” Daisley puts the spotlight on Martin Seligman, former Chairman of the American Psychological Association. Seligman’s work, specifically on the Penn Resilience Program, caught the eye of the US military, which hired him to instruct troops in “mental toughness”. His work has also been taught in schools.
But Daisley claims analysis of his programme shows it has little discernible effect. “I think it’s a reflection of American society,” he says. “Because the model of resilience that is being peddled to schools and businesses is this individualistic model – ‘there must be something wrong with you, we can fix it, here’s the intervention’.”
In a sense, Daisley thinks like a CA – if something doesn’t look right, he’ll question it, because the chances are that it’s not. Not that he dismisses the whole concept of resilience, however. On the contrary, he cites real-world instances ranging from sport to natural disaster to everyday life.
“We see examples right before our eyes,” he says. “The people of Ukraine are the most awe-inspiring example of resilience – people who were one day wearing a business suit, the next day they’re off to arm the battlements.
“There was an American researcher Enrico Quarantelli whose whole focus was looking at natural disasters. If there was an earthquake in Mexico, he’d drive down there. What he found wasn’t societal collapse. In fact, what tends to happen could be described as a ‘societal levelling’, where everyone thinks, ‘I don’t know what you were before, but we’ve got this shared identity now – we’re all survivors of this.’ And it produces this real, close bond.
“American social scientist Robert Putnam wrote that, for people over 60, if you want to halve your chance of dying next year, the best thing you can do is join a group. It can be as beneficial as giving up smoking or drinking.
“Collectivism is where people seem to find strength. The evidence behind those things is pretty substantial. It’s probably only because the architecture of the world is largely based on how we can make money out of something that we don’t promote those things more readily.”
This idea of collective strength is explored in another chapter that examines the work of Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp. “Irrespective of people’s interest in football, it’s evident that Klopp creates this lovely, cohesive, enjoyable bond,” says Daisley. “The way he talked at his former club, Borussia Dortmund, about building a sense of moving from ‘me’ to ‘we’, it’s like a visceral understanding of [collectivism]. That’s a simple lesson – when people feel like part of something, it’s where they draw their strength from. There’s that old research [that shows] when a penalty taker misses, players going up to that teammate [to console them] is a really important part of ensuring that group cohesiveness remains.”
It’s been a fascinating career journey for Daisley. He has gone from eight years at Twitter and three at YouTube, which have both become platforms for self-promotion, to preaching about collective power. How much did his time spent working at the two tech behemoths shape the work he does now?
“It was a really interesting time, because I worked at both YouTube and Twitter [in an age when] our perceptions of both companies changed. Twitter, when I first worked there, was a place where Jonathan Ross would tweet Stephen Fry about what they were up to. It was this frivolous side-channel of chat alongside society. Ten years ago, the London Olympics was a massive moment for Twitter, because everyone saw it as this humorous, subversive commentary on what was going on and people loved it.
“We went a long way from that frivolous, playful place to when I left Twitter, right in the dying end of the Trump era, where it was regarded as an existential threat to democracy. So that was a remarkable transformation. How has it informed my work? Working at those organisations made me understand the value of building strong cultures that are rooted in integrity and strong values.”
While Daisley will often use “fortitude” to describe a different way of thinking about resilience, he settled on it as the book’s title for more pragmatic reasons, citing a friend who works in the NHS: “She told me that ‘Anyone who mentions resilience round here will get thumped. We haven’t sorted out our burnout issues, haven’t sorted out the massively overwhelming waiting list and workloads. But someone has put on a resilience workshop at lunchtime and they will give you this model and people are just weary of it.’”
Daisley reiterates that to find true resilience, leaders should build a common culture, one in which people are more focused on the whole than the individual. He recalls another conversation he had when researching Fortitude: “I chatted to someone who worked for the United Nations. He said: ‘The first thing we do is look at whether there’s social cohesion. Are there things that bind the people of this country together or push them apart?’ If you’ve got rival groups, schisms within a country, that can become an enemy of social cohesion. And it’s similar with companies – there’s got to be a sense that we’re all in it together.”
Daisley warns that the shift to hybrid work risks losing that sense of the collective: “Some organisations are saying they will now have everyone in the office maybe three days a week. Many people have gone in and had pretty empty experiences. ‘Why are we coming in when nothing’s happening?’”
He believes that to be a successful leader, you have to understand what makes people feel part of something. “The fall of Boris Johnson is because, to the people who supported him, he went from being one of ‘us’, to being one of ‘them’,” he says. “Leaders need to think about this: do I feel like one of us or do I look like one of them? And I think that’s the best advice, really. How can any organisation make sure there’s a very strong feeling that we’re all in it together?”
Fortitude: Unlocking the Secrets of Inner Strength (Cornerstone Press, £20) is available now