Building resilience in times of uncertainty

07 October 2020
7 min read
Published:

“It is not the strongest that survive, but those that most readily adapt to change.” Right now, needless to say, we are going through a period of significant change across the world.

I am very aware of my own personal vulnerability. When you are young, you have a feeling of invincibility, but it wears off somewhat when you experience the battlefield. I have been in teams that have experienced some tricky situations, but whether I was skiing across frozen oceans to the North Pole or executing a hostage rescue operation in Afghanistan, I never feared for my life and I never panicked. I had the confidence in my own ability and total trust in the ability of those around me, which – combined – dispels all fear. All of the battles I have been involved in, literally or metaphorically, were won long before I went onto the battlefield.  Everything is in the preparation; physical, technical or mental. The key is to arm yourself and your colleagues with as much knowledge as you possibly can and give them and yourself the best tools that you can. It comes down to understanding the risks and having the ability to mitigate them.

Critically, be prepared for everything and not for something. Plans will rarely survive contact with your adversary, whether it is on the battlefield, in the sporting arena, in the surgeon’s theatre or in the conference room. Preparing for a specific environment, or a specific kind of task, because you think that is the most likely eventuality is likely to catch you out. Train hard across all disciplines, train for everything, and you’ll be ready for anything. Put processes in place, and be flexible, as it is far more important to have a process than to have a plan.  

Imagine yourself in a helicopter approaching a target. Your adrenaline is racing, the aircraft lands, the sand is blowing in your face, in your eyes, the noise is deafening, and your enemy fires upon you from an unexpected location. This is not the time for panic, panic leads to poor decisions. Accept the situation and ask yourself, “What’s the situation and how does it affect me?” Make an assessment, choose a course of action and respond appropriately.

Despite my knowledge, experience, understanding of what causes pressure and how to deal with it, there was one particular period in my career when my resilience was severely tested. As a leader, my main priority has always been the safety of my teams, and I wasn’t always successful. We did lose people; some suffered injuries that were life changing and others suffered later on down the line – not all scars are visible. I was saddened by every such incident, but was resilient enough to overcome them, I knew I had put 100 per cent effort into everything I did and couldn’t have done any more.

On one occasion I returned home early from a deployment in Afghanistan, and within weeks, two of my comrades were severely injured in two separate incidents. For some time, I questioned whether it was my fault; would I have done something different, could I have prevented it? It was a ridiculous train of thought, but I began to struggle. Thankfully, I recognised something was happening to me and shared my feelings with a trusted friend. He enforced the fact it was a ridiculous way to think, and my recovery was almost immediate. Simply talking to somebody had me on the road to recovery. Social support cannot be underestimated.

Looking back, thirty years ago, if any of my comrades had come to me with talk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or burnout, I would have told them to dry their eyes. I was ignorant, naïve, and very wrong – I would now be the first one to put my hand up and say that. In my many years as a special forces operator, I worked with some of the toughest and strongest men you could imagine, and I saw some of them reduced to a shadow of their former selves as a result of mental ill health. Mental health does not discriminate between soldiers and civilians and certainly does not discriminate between men and women.

There remains a myth that all PTSD, and other mental health issues are caused by experiences on the battlefield, but far more issues are caused by an overload of several different factors burdening the mind at the same time. It may be problems at work, you may have financial concerns, or you may have had an argument with a loved one. It becomes a problem when several such factors all happen at once. However, in every case, with support, education, and with the appropriate coping strategies, all could be avoidable.  

We can all be much more resilient than we actually give ourselves credit for. Resilience is not something you have or don’t have. It is affected by situation, and our levels of resilience will rise and fall based on the combined burden of internal and external factors that contribute to stressful situations. However, we shouldn’t let the situation take charge, acknowledge it, accept it, and move on to focus on your task.

Any organisation is only as strong as the collective resilience of its members. Only by understanding that we have shared areas of strength, and by building awareness of potential areas of vulnerability can we keep our teams’ integrity, and subsequently support one another to build the foundations of a sustainable, high performance culture. If we get that message across to everyone in our teams and organisations, we can grow individually and collectively, simultaneously.

Life can be demanding, it can be unpredictable, and it can become overwhelming. Work will provide us with challenging scenarios, sometimes we have to deal with difficult people, and then there are the external factors, the family factor, finances and illness. 

External pressures can be constant, and there are those pressures that come from within, the pressure we place upon ourselves; we are our own worst critics. We are diligent, conscientious, and we don’t want to let anybody down, and then there’s the “F words” – the Fear of Failure. Focus on your goal. I may not succeed the first time, but I don’t give up, and so in my mind, I have not failed. Maintain a positive mindset, the subconscious does not know what is right or wrong, it only knows what we tell it.

Other factors might include your diet. Are you getting enough of the right kind of exercise?

Sleep hygiene is super important too. All these kinds of things have an effect on our ability to be resilient. They can change from day to day, so it is about making healthy choices, making good work/life choices, recognising signs of stress and more importantly preparing ourselves and choosing to respond to them. How we shape our behaviour and actions will foster resilience.

If we maintain an optimal balance between pressures and capability, we can remain effective and perform at the highest levels indefinitely – but maintaining this state without support is difficult. We will all at some stage, to some extent, take on more than we can manage, or we will be burdened by additional external factors beyond our control, and we can begin to suffer with illness, anxiety and depression.

For many of us who think we are robust, the decline will happen slowly, so much so that we may not even recognise or acknowledge the change in our behaviour and performance, but it will slowly spiral, and the later we act, the more difficult the recovery.

Physical and mental resilience complement each other. Some people might need to do more physical stuff. Some might need to read more. You need to recognise what your needs are to improve your performance. If you neglect any of these elements, you will see a dip in performance. It is about the right balance and taking small steps in the right direction. During challenging periods, like we are currently experiencing.

Dominate your thinking because it can be overwhelming. Establish a routine. Practise self-care and prepare yourself for the next steps. Once this pandemic crisis is all over, we might all end up a fitter and healthier nation.

I love a quote from John Quincy Adams, a former US President; “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, then you are a leader.” I believe we should all be doing one or all of these things, at all times. 

There is a common theme across the people who inspire me. They always put others before themselves.

Alan Chambers, my friend and colleague, skied across Iceland to fundraise when a friend was disabled in a tragic accident. He went on to lead first successful British expedition from Canada to the Geographic North Pole, and he has gone on raise millions for multiple charities.

Phil Clarke, a former Great Britain captain who played Rugby League at the highest level. He was recruited by Australian club Sydney Roosters, but a serious spinal injury curtailed his career. An amazing man who did not feel sorry for himself and instead chose to take his knowledge of the game to become manager of Great Britain Rugby team. He also runs his own company providing performance analysis software for elite sportsmen all over the world.

Lewis Moody, former England Rugby Captain, who set up his own foundation aligned to the Brain Tumour charity after an academy member was cruelly taken by a brain tumour. Lewis and his supporters have raised millions by undertaking personal challenges around the world.

Julian Mylchreest, a very senior banker who took himself so far out of his comfort zone by walking to both the North and South Poles to raise over a million pounds for the BORNE Foundation.

The Extreme Leaders has identified three elements to maintaining and building resilience:

  • Physiology – The ability to recognise the signals from your own body, the importance of diet, sleep, exercise and social support.
  • Healthy choices – Both at home and at work will help maintain that optimal balance and prevent burnout.
  • Mindset – How we see things. Our attitudes towards the challenges we face, will have a profound effect on how we cope with them. If I was compelled to give you a single most important ingredient for resilience, it would definitely be mindset.

Taking those three key elements and drawing on our collective experiences of resilience and performance through adversity, we have developed a series of online programmes and tools to help individuals, teams and whole organisations build resilience and perform in adversity.

We call it Extreme Resilience. The programme is designed to help leaders maintain physical and mental resilience for their roles, not just through periods of uncertainty and isolation as we are currently experiencing but also enabling them to perform to the highest standards throughout their career and beyond. 

We will all experience anxiety on some level. The sooner we recognise it, and the sooner we take action, the less impact it will have on our lives going forward. The longer we withhold our issues or refuse to ask for help, the longer the road to recovery.

Now more than ever, as leaders we should understand that these underlying mental health issues are real, and they are happening now, whether we know about them or not. Putting measures in place to counteract the challenges life throws at us, is not only the right thing to do as a good human being, but it will also ensure that our people and businesses continue to thrive.

For more information about the Extreme Resilience programme visit www.theextremeleaders.com