Recovering from an "Act of Pure Evil"

What does it take to heal in the wake of disaster? Part 1: Leadership.

Posted Oct 16, 2017

Natural disasters can be devastating. Early disaster research has shown, however, that human-made disasters can be even more toxic, especially if they are intentional (see Everly & Parker, 2005). The Las Vegas massacre has been referred to as "an act of pure evil."

Wiki media
Source: Wiki media

The importance of providing support to an individual, a group, or an entire community in emergent distress is self-evident. What may be far less evident is how to provide such assistance. A seminal paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry stated that ‘‘shortly after a traumatic event, it is important that those affected be provided, in an empathic manner, practical, pragmatic psychological support’’ (Bisson, Brayne, Ochberg, & Everly, 2007, p. 1017). In a series of reviews, I will provide insight into what it takes to heal in the wake of a disaster.

When a traumatic event occurs we immediately think of the physical loss that has taken place. We react to address basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and, as underscored by the 2017 storms that hit Puerto Rico, the need for electrical power. These things foster physical recovery. Then we turn our attention to psychological recovery.

When I read or hear the words, "grief counselors were dispatched" reported in the news, I usually cringe. I envision caravans of well-meaning, but possibly ill-prepared and poorly organized individuals, and even groups, descending on the disaster venue. My concerns are more than speculation, rather they are born of my observations from disasters such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the World Trade Center bombing, and Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina.

While it seems obvious, let me state for the record, that while we expect and demand that physical and medical aid be competently rendered in an organized manner, after a disaster, we must expect and demand that psychological support be rendered by specially trained personnel in an organized and well-planned manner. The first step toward achieving this goal designed to foster individual and community resilience is providing leadership, but not any kind of leadership…resilience-focused leadership.

Resilient leadership may be thought of as those leadership behaviors that help us adapt to, or rebound from, adversity. According to the Institute of Medicine report, "Resilient leadership practices serve as the catalyst that inspires others to exhibit resistance and resilience and to exceed their own expectations" (Institute of Medicine, 2012, p 104). It motivates us to get up when we've been knocked down. It can be applied to groups, sports teams, organizations, and communities (Everly, 2011). Such leadership is ideally suited for disaster response and especially "acts of evil" that demoralize and paralyze.

Wiki media
Source: Wiki media

Resilient leadership consists of at least two essential elements:

1. Resilient leadership in the wake of disaster begins with open, credible communications. There is no such thing as a communications vacuum, especially in the age of social media. If the leader is not communicating, someone else is…usually a very distressed person. Then leadership must play catch-up. In disasters, leaders must do five simple things: a) Disclose what happened; b) Reveal the cause; c) Explain the short-term and long-term consequences; d) Detail what is being done to foster recovery; e) If possible, describe what is being done to prevent a recurrence.

2) Resilient leadership continues with decisiveness. During and after the disaster strike, leaders must be decisive and their decisions must lead to action. The most disabling action is inaction. In most instances, it is better to err through the wrong action than to err by way of paralysis in leadership. Again indecisiveness leads is an abdication of leadership in crisis.

Resilient leadership is different than traditional leadership, but it can be taught. I suggest that the next time disaster strikes, you evaluate your elected and chosen leaders using these criteria. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, Colin Powell, and Rudy Giuliani come to mind as examples of resilient leaders.

In my experience, resilient leadership, when applied effectively, restores confidence in humanity and builds organizational and community cohesion after natural disasters and even "acts of pure evil."

(C) George S. Everly, Jr., PhD, 2017.


Bisson, J. I. , Brayne, M., Ochberg, F.,  & Everly, G. S. , Jr. (2007). Early psychosocial intervention following traumatic events. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164, 1016-1019.

Everly, GS, Jr (2011). Building a resilient organizational culture. Harvard Business Review, online version, June 24.

Everly, G. S. , Jr., & Parker, C.L.(2005). (Eds). Mental health aspects of disaster. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Preparedness.

Institute of Medicine. (2012). Building a Resilient Workforce: Opportunities for the Department of Homeland Security: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.