What do a military psychologist, a former Army colonel and a retired National Basketball Association (NBA) umpire have in common? On the one hand, they know a lot about how people react in stressful, dangerous, and fast-moving situations.
After years of scientific study, leading others into dangerous situations or making quick decisions in NBA games in front of thousands of fans in the stands and possibly millions of game broadcasts, they know what it takes both to achieve mission goals and to remain resilient in the face of adversity.
In a forthcoming book chapter, Swiss military psychologist Hubert Annen, retired US Army Colonel Donna Brazil and former NBA referee Bob Delaney describe a conceptual model of “real-time” resilience, a competence they observe in leaders who succeed in difficult situations, including professions such as as first responders, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and high-stakes business and sports settings.1
Resilience can be defined as “the ability to cope successfully with difficult situations and to continue and persevere in the face of adversity”.2 Of course, making good decisions and achieving goals are essential, but staying mentally healthy in the face of adversity is essential to both continued success and personal well-being.
There is a large literature on the scientific study of individual resilience. For example, psychological resilience – the ability to adapt to difficult, dangerous and stressful conditions – is consistently linked to a variety of positive life outcomes.3
On my daily commute to my office in West Point, I observe small trees and bushes clinging to the side of a mountain cliff, thriving in the face of extremely harsh conditions. In the same way, hardy people adapt, overcome and succeed in remarkably difficult circumstances.
Hardiness has three components-control, challengeand commitment. People who thrive in dangerous situations believe that their own actions are critical in determining success (control); see these situations not as threats to their personal well-being, but rather as an opportunity to learn and grow (challenge), and believe deeply in the importance of what they do and work tirelessly to succeed ( commitment). Toughness is just one of many psychological traits linked to personal resilience, but it illustrates the idea that personal, ingrained personality traits and skills are fundamental to excelling and adapting to difficult situations.
Source: Garonzi Stefania, courtesy CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Although much is known about individual addiction, relatively little has been written about how those who conduct others in dangerous situations remain resilient. Carrying the burden of making tactically sound decisions and the responsibility for the physical safety and psychological well-being of supporters add significantly to the challenges faced by these leaders.
A battalion commander who sends firefighters into a burning building with the risk of serious injury or death must possess the psychological capital to deal with the potentially catastrophic consequences of his decisions. Certainly, personal resilience skills such as Toughness contribute to leader resilience, but are there any leader characteristics that add to this ability?
Annen, Brazil and Delaney think so. Combining their decades of practical experience with a thorough review of the resilience literature, they identified four attributes that in extremist leaders must rely on each other to deal effectively with dragging others into danger. Leaders must possess high cognitive ability, trustthe ability to control their emotions, and effective communication skills.
The military refers to dangerous situations as VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). Thus, those who lead under these conditions must be masters of their craft and highly competent in all aspects of their work.
Stress, dynamic and rapidly changing conditions and the “fog of war” complicate decision-making. Unlike a mathematician pondering an equation, in extremis leaders must make quick decisions that have significant results, including the life or death of their followers. For these reasons, high intelligence is a prerequisite for successful problem solving and mission success.
Cognitive ability and competence bring confidence. Confidence and confidence in their own abilities are at the heart of leaders’ resilience. These leaders possess realistic optimism in the face of adversity because they know they have the knowledge, skills, and experience to prevail. This in turn boosts self-esteem and feelings of self-efficacy.
Emotional control allows resilient leaders to focus their attention on the task at hand, even when some would give in to fear, sadness, or despair. This does not mean that resilient leaders must constantly repress their emotions. Instead, they are able to control when and where to give in to them.
A police shift commander overseeing a critical incident should focus on coordinating an effective response, not on their emotional reaction to the situation, no matter how dire. But resilient leaders also learn when and how to express their emotions. After the incident, they take stock of what happened, analyze their decisions and acknowledge their emotional reaction.
Leaders accomplish their missions by inspiring followers to perform at their best. Even the most technically competent leader will fail if they don’t communicate quickly and effectively. Through communication, in extremis leaders set and manage the expectations of followers. This creates a social relationship of mutual support between the leader and the followers. This mutually supportive relationship forms the basis of leader and follower resilience.
Annen, Brazil, and Delaney have called these factors the “4-Cs” of leader resilience. This is “real-time” resiliency due to the nature of the VUCA environment.a Leaders must be able to bounce back quickly regardless of the circumstances. Additionally, the 4-Cs are skills that can be taught and developed. This is important because it reinforces the notion that effective and resilient leaders are made, not born.
Organizations operating in VUCA contexts know this and devote considerable resources to developing these attributes among their leaders. When lives are at stake, to do less would be irresponsible.
Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
. Resilience real time for leaders Psychology Today United Kingdom