Secret of Resilience in Top Management Unlocked?

How It All Began
How do people manage to develop their full potential under the most difficult circumstances? And what can managers learn from these people? We have spent over a decade researching and working with countless managers to identify the individual factors that have a positive or negative impact on their crisis resilience. And we developed a scientifically sound procedure to measure the protective and risk factors, because skills can only be strengthened if they are recognized as relevant and if can be influenced. We are now in a position to present initial research data that provides exciting insights into the connection between crisis resilience and management careers.

Why the Focus on Managers?
We have been supporting top managers and their teams in overcoming crises since 2008. Our experience shows that the requirements of this target group differ significantly from the needs of employees. The great will to shape things in an often highly political environment, the enjoyment of power and responsibility and the pronounced work ethic to the point of self-endangerment are just a few examples of these differences. We therefore decided early on to understand resilience as a critical aspect of leadership, namely managing one's own mental and emotional inner world.

How Does Resilience Work?
For our work with managers, we have developed a model that summarizes the current research findings in the field of resilience: The Executive FiRE Model of Resilience. The abbreviation "FiRE" stands for "Factors improving Resilience Effectiveness®". In this model, the various effective factors of mental and emotional resilience are combined into a spatial construct. It consists of eight flame-shaped spheres with increasing diameters from the inside to the outside. The layering is intended to symbolize that the outer levels of resilience are easier for the individual to influence than the inner core, i.e. their own biography and personality. The spheres of meaning, authentic relationships, mind-body axis, energy management, mental agility and attitude represent different groups of coping mechanisms that can be influenced by the individual with some effort. The order in which they are listed is primarily a structure of content.

What Is the Scientific Foundation?
The Executive FiRE Model of Resilience is used to develop and train strategies for maintaining and improving the resilience of managers so that difficult situations or crises have a less serious impact on the manager or, ideally, even strengthen them. The FiRE model was developed with the help of well-founded concepts from several recognized psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, biologists and brain researchers. Specifically, these include Lewis Terman
with his study "Genetic Studies of Genious", Viktor Frankl's existential analysis, Emmy Werner's resilience research in developmental psychology, Aaron Antonovsky's "Sense of Coherence" concept, Jon Kabat-Zinn's research on his "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction" program, brain research studies by Klaus Grawe and David B. by Klaus Grawe
and David Rock, the research findings on epigenetics by Conrad Hal Waddington and the studies on psycho-neuro-immunology by Robert Ader. These are described in detail in the book "Resilienz in der Unternehmensführung" by Karsten Drath.

For Your Understanding: Traits, Habits and State

Resilience to setbacks seems to be anchored in the personality to a certain extent. When a person is frightened, they close their eyes involuntarily for a short time. This is a startle reflex that cannot be controlled voluntarily. If test subjects are exposed to an unexpected loud bang, the length of the startle reflex can be used to predict how quickly a person can process negative events such as anger, insecurity or fear. Experiments have shown that people who react more relaxed to a loud bang generally have a more positive attitude towards problems and difficulties. These personality traits are also referred to as "traits". Such a trait can describe and predict certain behaviors of a person in certain situations that remain the same over time. Traits associated with resilience include the need for emotional stability, the degree of extraversion and the level of openness to new experiences. Traits cannot be deliberately changed permanently. About half of them are innate and the rest are formed in childhood. This is why they are also referred to as "raw resilience". Habits, on the other hand, are consciously and unconsciously learned behaviours as a result of so-cialization, life experience and professional behaviour or even wisdom. In contrast to traits, habits are easier to influence and require the use of energy, starting with a decision. Do I go jogging or not? Do I call a trusted person or
not? Do I write down my thoughts or not? These coping strategies can help us to deal better with stress and the resulting emotions and thought patterns. However, they can only do this if we do them regularly so that they become a habit. This is why these factors are also referred to as "learned resilience". Last but not least, the state describes the current level of life satisfaction. Of all three groups, this is most frequently subject to fluctuations and changes. For example, current life satisfaction can be negatively affected by adverse external influences, while an inspiring conversation or sunshine with a blue sky can drive it up. The state is the interface, so to speak, between our inner world and the world around us.

What Makes the Executive FiRE Index Special?
Most instruments for measuring resilience come from the field of personality psychology and therefore only measure traits, i.e. personality characteristics that are deliberately unchangeable and stable over time. These do indeed have a major influence on our resilience to crises, but as we have already seen, they are only half the story. The Executive FiRE Index, on the other hand, measures both the relevant traits and the habits, i.e. the learned resilience, as well as the level of current life satisfaction, the state. In contrast to other measuring instruments, the Executive FiRE Index is always used twice in practice and is typically accompanied by coaching or a resilience development program. The first measurement takes place at the beginning of the intervention, the second measurement about six months later to give the client sufficient time to establish new resilience-promoting behavioral patterns. The Executive FiRE Index is aimed at healthy executives who wish to develop further and requires voluntary participation and psychological safety in order to minimize the effects of socially desirable responses. It should only be used for personal development and resilience-building measures and not for recruiting or other selection processes.

How Reliable Is the Data?
Every scientifically oriented measurement and survey method must meet certain quality criteria. In psychological diagnostics, a distinction is made between the following aspects:

1. Objectivity: Do different test lines produce the same results?
2. Reliability: How accurate are the measurements?
3. Validity: Does the instrument measure what it is supposed to measure?


Objectivity asks whether the respective test administration has an influence on the results. This can happen, for example, through different ways of conducting the measurement or different criteria in the evaluation.
The Executive FiRE Index is recorded completely online and evaluated electronically. Accordingly, the results are independent of the respective test administrator and the objectivity of the measurement instrument is guaranteed.


Reliability is the accuracy of measurement. This involves checking whether the measuring instrument
used is reliable. High reliability is shown, for example, by high internal consistency. This means that
questions designed to measure the same aspects produce similar results. Another aspect is high retest reliability.
The question here is whether the results can be reproduced in a repeated measurement under the same framework conditions. The internal consistency of a measurement instrument can be expressed using Cronbach's alpha. This
measure, named after the American psychologist Lee Cronbach, describes the extent to which the items on a scale are related to each other. Values between 0.65 and 0.95 are aimed for. Values lower than 0.65 mean that items on a scale are very different and probably measure different things. Very high values (close to 1) mean that the items are very similar, which can also be an indication that they may contain redundant information and the number of items can be reduced.
The measured values of the Executive FiRE Index show that the individual areas have a high internal consistency. It also shows that the items can be further sharpened in the construct of habits. Retest reliability checks whether the results can be reproduced when the measurement is repeated under the same conditions. The results of the first and
second measurements are correlated. For characteristics such as traits that are expected to be stable over time, values close to 1.0 are aimed for. For variable values such as habits, lower values are expected. As there are typically 6 months between measurement time A and B of the Executive FiRE Index, it has not yet been possible to determine a sufficiently large sample for the study.


The supreme discipline in the quality criteria is validity. Objectivity and reliability are necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for good validity. Validity means that the test actually measures the characteristic/personal trait that it is intended to measure. Important aspects here are internal validity (conclusiveness of the assumptions in the light of the
current state of research) and construct validity (the extent to which theoretical assumptions, for example about aspects of a construct to be differentiated, can be empirically confirmed). Internal validity considers the conclusiveness of the underlying hypotheses, the logic of the psychometric constructs, and the psychometric constructs, and the suitability of the chosen measurement method in light of current research. The logic of the hypotheses and the psycho-
metric constructs that lead to the creation of the Executive FiRE model of resilience is based on broadbased research documented in the book "Resilienz in der Unternehmensführung" (Haufe; 3rd edition; 01/2023; Drath, Karsten). The Executive FiRE Index measurement method and the items themselves were reviewed and further developed in collaboration with Dr. Lotte Pummerer, an expert in conducting and evaluating psychological studies. Construct validity looks at the structure and dimensionality of an instrument and examines the extent to which this matches the theoretical assumptions. For example, if different sub-aspects of a construct are assumed (as in the FiRE model), confirmatory factor analyses can be used to check whether the subdivision can be confirmed with the data. A basic
assumption of the FiRE model is the subdivision of the traits into the need for emotional stability, extraversion and openness to new experiences, as well as the subdivision of the 8 spheres of the FiRE model into 7 habit spheres plus 1 trait sphere. This division was checked in each case by means of factor analysis. Various key figures, so-called model fit indices, are used to determine this, for example the RMSEA (root mean square error of approximation) and CFI (Comparative Fit Index). The RMSEA evaluates the fit between the theoretical model and the actual data, taking into account the error of approximation. Lower RMSEA values (close to 0) generally indicate a better fit. Different threshold values for the RMSEA are mentioned in the literature (e.g. 0.05 or 0.08). The CFI indicates the improvement in the fit of the proposed model compared to a basic model of independence. The CFI assumes values from 0 to 1, whereby the literature usually mentions limit values from 0.90 or 0.95 as satisfactory. The observed model fit indices of the Executive FiRE Index are around the usual limits. They could be improved in the future by more clearly delineating dif-
ferent aspects of personality and different spheres. However, as these show overlaps in both theory and practice, the model fit indices can be classified as appropriate for the purpose of the measuring instrument.

First Research Results
Applied research is essential for us because it enables us to better understand the qualities of crisis resilience in managers and to identify ways in which this can be further developed and strengthened. These insights are not only invaluable for the participating managers themselves, but also for companies, as strong and resilient leaders have a positive impact on teams and entire organizations due to their role model function. In June 2022, we therefore took an initial sample from the Executive FiRE Index database.

About the Sample
A diverse and therefore sufficiently large sample in statistical evaluations is important because it ensures that diverse and accurate conclusions can be drawn that apply to the entire target group. For the Executive FiRE Index, this means that people in management positions of different ages, genders, educational levels and career levels are included in
the study. A diverse sample with over 500 data sets is considered to be relatively robust, as random influences are averaged out. In the study presented here, a sample of 538 graduates from the Executive FiRE Index was used. The
data sets are made up of the following demographic proportions:

  • Gender:
    • Male: 237
    • Female: 299
  • Age:
    • 20-29 years: 32
    • 30-39 years: 115
    • 40-49 years: 178
    • 50-59 years: 148
    • 60-69 years: 47
  • Education:
    • Bachelor: 72
    • Master: 214
    • Promotion: 37
    • Other: 215
  • Nationality:
    • German: 367
    • Swiss: 43
    • US-American: 20
  • Career Level:
    • Employees: 49
    • Middle Management: 54
    • Senior Management: 69
    • Top Management: 55
    • Self-Employed: 76
  • Industry:
    • Consulting/Coaching: 84
    • Further Education: 34
    • Healthcare: 37
    • Professional Services: 20
    • Transport: 13
    • Construction Industry: 11
    • Pharmaceutical Industry: 12

Before we dive into the details of our investigations, it is important to mention that these are always correlations, not necessarily causal relationships. Correlation means that two observations can occur together, but this does not mean that one necessarily causes the other. For example: ice cream sales and swimming accidents correlate in summer. When it is warm, more ice cream is consumed and there are also more swimming accidents. However, this does not mean that the consumption of ice cream causes swimming accidents. With correlations, there can always be hidden variables, such as the time of year and temperature, which influence both observed aspects. Causality, on the other hand, occurs when one factor actually causes another. For example: smoking causes health problems. There is a clear correlation here. In addition to this, however, there is also a scientifically proven cause-effect relationship. The available results should therefore always be viewed with common sense and openness to different mechanisms of action in order to avoid inferring causality from a correlation.

At What Age Are We Satisfied?
In addition to the respondent's age, gender and career level, the Executive FiRE Index also measures current life satisfaction. This includes satisfaction with regard to career and financial resources as well as social factors such as partnership, family life and social commitment, as well as satisfaction with regard to one's own health and the meaningfulness of one's own actions. This so-called state is not so much a protective or risk factor for resilience per se.
Rather, this value allows statements to be made about the extent to which a person currently considers their life to be successful. Life satisfaction can therefore be influenced by external factors or be a result of a person's own resilience. A combination of both is most likely. B Our study revealed that life satisfaction between the ages of 30 and 39 differs significantly from that of the neighboring age groups. In this phase, many people apparently experience a kind of "crisis" in which professional and personal expectations do not correspond to reality. Job stress and the burdens of family life, including the challenges of starting a family and raising children, may have a negative impact on
satisfaction. At the same time, financial commitments are often higher at this age, while careers are fraught with uncertainty. Resilience is particularly important at such a time. However, this must be learned. Job changes and changes in social and professional life mean that new strategies for resilience need to be developed. In contrast, people in their 40s are often already freer from obligations and experience greater satisfaction through personal develop-
ment or stable circumstances. Life satisfaction is highest for the cohort between the ages of 50 and 59. By the time they
reach this stage of life, many people have achieved professional success and are more financially stable. They can look back on a wide range of life experiences that have helped them develop life skills and cope better with challenges.
Many children have already left home at this stage of life, which leads to more freedom and flexibility. The workload can decrease and the opportunity to pursue new interests and hobbies increases. Social relationships are strengthened and many people have built up a stable network of friends and family. This leads to an increased feeling of security, satisfaction and inner balance, which can explain the peak of life satisfaction in this age group. The group between the ages of 60 and 69 again shows a lower level of life satisfaction. It is characteristic of this stage of life that it is accompanied by a number of challenges. Firstly, age-related physical and health restrictions occur more frequently, which can limit mobility and independence. Furthermore, many people in this age group are approaching retirement
age, which can bring about changes in the social structure. The loss of professional identity and social contacts at work can lead to feelings of isolation. Losing loved ones and coming to terms with mortality can also affect life satisfaction.

Does Career Go Hand in Hand with Life Satisfaction?
As it turns out, there is a correlation between life satisfaction and career level. Statistically speaking, it is lowest among employees. Middle management achieves higher values and satisfaction reaches its maximum in the top management cohort. This could be due to the fact that a higher career level is associated with more creative freedom, a sense of purpose and status. Another explanation could be that only employees with a high level of life satisfaction and strong resilience are promoted to management in the first place. Several selection procedures have to be passed in order to reach senior management, which could lead to top managers having the highest average level of life satisfaction due to social selection, despite the great responsibility and omnipresent pressure. Life satisfaction and leadership responsibility correlate. Managers at the top of the company are significantly more satisfied than employees. It is unclear whether the higher level of satisfaction is the result of career success or a necessary prerequisite for it.

Women, Men, and Resilience
Our study also shows interesting gender-specific differences in certain aspects of resilience. For example, women have slightly higher values for the trait "need for emotional stability", which can be seen as a risk factor for resilience.
Among other things, this trait describes a person's sensitivity and their access to empathy with other people. This is also reflected in higher values for the "Authentic relationships" habit. On average, women appear to be more
sensitive and more susceptible to self-doubt. They react more empathically and seem to have a greater interest in deep relationships and stability. Women also score higher in the areas of self-management and energy management. Overall, women also score higher in the area of habits. On average, men have lower values for the trait "Need for emotional stability" and higher values for the trait "Openness to new experiences" and the habit "Mental agility". On average, men therefore appear to be less easily unsettled by self-doubt and tend to be more positive about new challenges. Overall, female managers have lower scores in the area of raw resilience, while the male subjects are somewhat weaker in the area of learned resilience.

Does What Doesn't Kill Us Really Make Us Stronger?
Another central research question was: Does the available resilience, i.e. the combination of trait- and habit-based resilience, increase with age, for example due to life experiences, or does it tend to wear off over the years, e.g. due
to increasing stress and increasing health restrictions? Or could both effects apply? The graph opposite provides an impressive illustration of the progression of resilience across different age groups. Resilience initially remains the same in the transition from the 20s to the 30s. It is then significantly higher in the 40s. It is possible that people of this age are more stable professionally and personally, have reached milestones in life and have internalized aspects of resilience for themselves over time. The highest level of resilience is reached in the 50s, when life experience and
stability reach their peak. The available resilience in this age group is a good 6% higher than in young people. In the 60s, the level of available resilience is lower again, which could indicate the challenges of ageing. It is worth noting that the raw resilience, i.e. the trait-based proportion, remains almost the same across all age groups. This supports the theory that traits hardly change over the course of life. Although the development of our resilience depends on age, it is not linear, but describes a kind of curve with the lowest value in the 30s and the highest level in the 50s.

Collective Development Fields?
But what exactly does the development of habits, i.e. the coping strategies that have become habitual, look like with increasing age? The following chart shows an overview of the results. For better comparability of the individual spheres, the presentation is z-standardized, i.e. the zero line represents the mean value across all age groups and differences between the age groups are shown by means of positive and negative standard deviation. At first glance, it is clear that the first two spheres show the greatest differences between the age groups, while the others show a significantly lower dynamic. One possible explanation for this could be that these are potential areas of development for the age cohorts in the area of certain habits that could be addressed through targeted resilience training.
In the "Biography" sphere, the value for 20-29 year olds is still -0.40 standard deviations below the mean value, while for over 60 year olds it is 0.27 standard deviations above the mean value for all age groups. This is also the only sphere in which the value increases continuously across all age groups. This could make sense insofar as this sphere is about consciously coming to terms with one's life story and utilizing life's crises, successes, decisions and learning experiences as resources. The older someone gets, the more he or she may also be concerned with the course of his or her life. The "Attitude" sphere is about consciously choosing between victim and creator behaviour and taking responsibility for one's own well-being despite adverse circumstances. This behavioural practice is also 0.39 standard deviations below the mean value across all age groups for 20-29-year-olds. In the 50s, the value is then 0.20 standard deviations above the mean value. However, the value drops again slightly when moving into the 60s. The "Mental Agility" sphere is about consciously moving out of one's own comfort zone and regularly trying out new things. Here too, the value rises slightly across the various age groups and falls again in the 60s. The spheres of "Energy Management" and "Mind-Body Axis" show fairly parallel differences. Both involve the regular use of mental or physical practices that serve emotional selfregulation. The "Authentic Relationships" sphere involves cultivating relationships with the members of the "personal advisory board", i.e. people who can understand our own lifestyle and priorities and are honest with us. Here, too, we see differences in the group of 30s and later again in the 60s. The first difference can probably be explained by the challenges of starting a family, while the second delta could be associated
with leaving the labour market. The sphere of "Meaning" also shows differences across the age cohorts. This is about becoming aware of your values, i.e. the aspects that are particularly important to you in life. And it is about living one's own life in harmony with these convictions. The decline in old age is probably due to retirement and the associated decline in a sense of purpose. The habits that make up our learnt resilience develop very dynamically and heterogeneously across the different age groups. The spheres of "Biography" and "Attitude" show by far the greatest development. This growth is most likely to correspond to the saying "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger". The other spheres, on the other hand, suggest collective areas of development that could be addressed through targeted interventions.

Resilience and Career: Chicken or Egg?
The connection between career success and an individual's level of resilience is fascinating. People who have a high level of resilience often have a better chance of being successful in their careers. This correlation is well known and understandable. However, it is unclear whether resilience is the cause or the effect. Are managers promoted because they are resilient, or do they become resilient because they have to learn to deal with the pressure and uncertainty at the higher career level? Or do both apply? The Executive FiRE Index measures both raw resilience, i.e. the proportion of resilience that can be attributed to personality factors (traits), and the degree of learned resilience, i.e. the sum of resilience-enhancing behaviours (habits) that someone has adopted. This makes it easy to differentiate whether the traits, which are consciously difficult to change, or the learnt habits, or even both, are the decisive factor. Let us first focus on the traits. The following personality factors correlate with a high level of raw resilience and are measured by the Executive FiRE Index:

• Need for (emotional) stability
   Stability: low
• Extraversion: high
• Openness to new experiences: high

The values in the following diagram show a clear correlation between raw resilience and career level. The test subjects from middle management have around 5% higher values than the employees. Up to top management there is a further 5% difference. A difference of around 10% in raw resilience explains the difference between employees and top management. Self-employed people, on the other hand, are on average well below the level at the top of the organization, roughly at the level of middle management. This is understandable since the majority of the participants were actually coaches, i.e. a professional group in which empathy and sensitivity are more important than emotional robustness and a thick skin. There is a correlation between the level of raw resilience and career level. The results suggest that resilience is a decisive factor in whether a person is identified as a manager and promoted accordingly

What Does It Take to Stay on Top?
But what about the habits? Do they remain unchanged or do they show a similar correlation? As can be seen in the chart below, the habits that promote resilience are also less pronounced on average among employees than in middle management and senior management. The difference between employees and senior management is at 7%. Incidentally, the people who are self-employed have just as pronounced habit values as senior management.
They seem to use the greater degree of freedom that comes with their profession to take good care of themselves, among other things. Raw resilience can help you to rise up the career ladder, but you also need a high level of learnt
resilience to deal with the demands of various stakeholders at high altitude in the long term. Or to put it more simply: traits make it easier to climb to the top, while habits ensure that you stay "on top".

In the adjacent chart, we see the values of the total available resilience as a function of career level. As can be seen, the effects of traits and habits do not add up linearly, but neutralize each other to a certain extent due to the triangular function. For example, the mean value for senior and top management is 8% higher than the value for employees. As a reminder, this delta was 10% for the Traits and 7% for the Habits. The participants from senior and top management achieved equally high values overall, as the differences in traits and habits cancelled each other out here. Due to their more pronounced habits, the self-employed rank just below the level of the top management in terms of overall resilience. The level of resilience available is related to the likelihood of a person becoming and remaining a leader. Both traits and the habits that can be learnt could not only play an important role in whether someone makes it to the top of the company, but also whether they can withstand the burden of responsibility in thin air in the long term.

What Do Top Managers Need to Learn?
To what extent does the degree of coping strategies differ at different career levels and what can be deduced from this? The following graphic shows the correlation very clearly. In most spheres, the values of senior management are slightly higher than those of employees. The differences are particularly clear in the spheres of Mental Agility (Δ = 10%) and Meaning (Δ = 11%). One possible explanation for this is that these are the bits that are necessary to survive in senior management in the long term. While middle management suffers above all from the sandwich role between employees and senior management and the resulting pressure, the bad news from the organization is concentrated at the top of the company. If something goes wrong, it is typically escalated upwards. People in top management are therefore often confronted with crises and imbalances and have to train throughout their careers to move as quickly as possible from a victimized position to a confident and creative mode. This ongoing crisis management pays into the high values of the "Attitude" sphere and, with a slightly different logic, also into the "Mental Agility" sphere. In the case of the latter, people in top management must also be used to actively dealing with market dynamics, thinking two or more years ahead and adapting their own behaviour and the company's direction if necessary. As we have also seen, most managers have a comparatively strong impulse to take on responsibility due to their high raw resilience, especially due to the "Extraversion" trait. Although management work involves a lot of trouble, it also offers many opportunities to shape things, which most managers perceive as quite meaningful, which may explain the high values
for the "Meaning" habit. A higher sense of meaning is otherwise only found among the self-employed, who in this
study largely consist of coaches and have embarked on the path to self-employment precisely for this reason, the search for meaning. In the "Attitude" and "Mental Agility" spheres, the values of the self-employed roughly corre-
spond to those of middle management, perhaps because they do not have quite as many crises. In the spheres "Energy Management" and "Mind-Body Axis", however, the values of the self-employed are more pronounced compared to employees. Both spheres deal with emotional self-regulation, which coaches need more often than top managers due to their relationship work and their higher average sensitivity. 

For top managers, the "Attitude", "Mental Agility" and "Meaning" habits in particular are more pronounced, which suggests that these in particular are needed to stay at the top of the organization for a longer period of time. The "Energy Management" and "Mind-Body Axis" spheres, which deal with mental and emotional self-regulation, are also somewhat more pronounced, which is understandable given the amount of bad news that is being channelled towards top management.

The Results at a Glance

  • Our life satisfaction and our resilience are age-dependent. Both are lowest in the 30-39 age cohort and highest in the 50-59 age cohort.
  • Life satisfaction is also dependent on career level. The greater the managerial responsibility, the higher the life satisfaction.
  • Male managers have a higher level of raw resilience and less self-doubt. They have a more positive attitude towards new challenges.
  • Female managers have a more pronounced learnt resilience and are more sensitive, more empathetic and more prone to selfdoubt. They are more relationship-orientated and value stability more.
  • When comparing the age groups, the habits "Biography" and "Attitude" show the strongest differences for all participants.
  • The crisis resilience of managers is made up of beneficial parts of the personality and learned behaviours that strengthen resilience and have become habits.
  • Managers at the top of a company have a higher degree of resilience than employees.
  • A high level of raw resilience could be partly responsible for whether an employee becomes a leader.
  • Learned resilience is linked to professionalsuccess. This could mean that learnt resilience is a decisive factor in how long a manager can withstand the pressure at the top of the company.
  • In the cohorts of employees and top management, differences can be observed above all in the habits "Mental Agility" and "Meaning". These appear to be areas of learning that need to be mastered in the course of career advancement.

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