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Real-Time Resilience for Leaders

Overcoming adversity when the chips are down.

Key points

  • Leading others in dangerous situations involves a heavy burden of responsibility.
  • Along with personal resilience skills, in extremis leaders benefit from additional attributes that facilitate coping under such conditions.
  • These attributes include high cognitive ability, confidence, ability to control emotions, and sophisticated communication skills.

What do a military psychologist, a former Army colonel, and a retired National Basketball Association (NBA) referee have in common? For one thing, they know a lot about how people respond in stressful, dangerous, and rapidly unfolding situations.

From years of scientific study, leading others in dangerous situations, or making snap decisions in NBA games in front of thousands of fans in the stands and perhaps millions on 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 U.S. Army colonel Donna Brazil, and former NBA referee Bob Delaney describe a conceptual model of “real-time” resilience, a skill they observe among successful leaders in challenging situations including occupations such as first responders, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and high stakes business and sports settings.1

Resilience may be defined as the “ability to deal successfully with challenging situations and to carry on and persevere in the face of adversity.”2 Making good decisions and achieving objectives is critical, of course, but remaining psychologically healthy in the face of adversity is essential to both continued success and personal well-being.

There is extensive literature on the scientific study of individual resilience. For example, psychological hardiness–the ability to adapt to harsh, dangerous, and stressful conditions–is consistently linked to a variety of positive life outcomes.3

On my daily drive to my office at 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 a similar manner, hardy people adapt, overcome, and succeed in remarkably difficult circumstances.

Hardiness has three components–control, challenge, and commitment. Individuals who thrive in dangerous situations believe their own actions are instrumental in determining success (control); view these situations not as threats to 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). Hardiness is just one of many psychological traits linked to personal resilience, but it illustrates the notion that personal, ingrained personality traits and skills are fundamental to excelling in, and adapting to, challenging situations.

Garonzi Stefania, permission from CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Garonzi Stefania, permission from CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While much is known about individual reliance, relatively little is written about how those who lead 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 followers add substantially to the challenges faced by such leaders.

A battalion chief 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 or her decisions. Certainly, personal resilience skills like hardiness contribute to leader resilience, but are there leader characteristics that add to this ability?

Annen, Brazil, and Delaney think so. Coupling their decades of practical experience with a thorough review of the resilience literature, they identified four attributes that in extremist leaders must rely on to cope effectively with leading others in harm’s way. Leaders must possess high cognitive ability, confidence, the ability to control their emotions, and effective communication skills.

The military refers to dangerous situations as VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). As such, those who lead in these conditions must be masters of their trade and highly competent in all aspects of their job.

Stress, dynamic and rapidly evolving conditions, and the “fog of war” complicate decision-making. Unlike a mathematician puzzling over an equation, in extremis leaders must make quick decisions that have significant outcomes, including life or death for their followers. For these reasons, high intelligence is a prerequisite to successful problem-solving and mission success.

Cognitive ability and competence bring confidence. Confidence and trust in their own ability are central to leader resilience. These leaders possess realistic optimism in face of adversity because they know they have the knowledge, skills, and experience to prevail. This in turn builds self-esteem and a sense 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 is not to say that resilient leaders should permanently suppress their emotions. Instead, they are able to control when and where it is appropriate to give in to them.

A police shift commander supervising a critical incident must focus on coordinating an effective response and not on his or her emotional response to the situation, however dire it may be. 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 response.

Leaders accomplish their missions by influencing followers to perform at their best. Even the most technically competent leader will fail if he or she does not communicate in a timely and effective manner. Through communication, in extremis leaders set and manage the expectations of followers. This builds a mutually supportive social relationship between the leader and followers. This mutually supportive relationship provides the basis for the leader's and followers' resilience.

Annen, Brazil, and Delaney characterized these factors as the “4-C’s” of leader resilience. It is “real-time” resilience because of the nature of the VUCA environment.a Leaders must be able to quickly rebound no matter the circumstances. Moreover, 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 that function in VUCA settings know this and devote considerable resources to nurturing these attributes among their leaders. When lives are on the line, to do less would be irresponsible.

Note: The views expressed herein 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.


[1] Hubert Annen, Donna Brazil, Bob Delaney, “Real Time Resilience and Leadership in Challenging Situations” in Sweeney, P. J., Matthews, M. D., Lester, P. B., Hannah, S., & Reed, B. (Eds), Leadership in Dangerous Situations: A Handbook for the Armed Forces, Emergency Services, and First Responders (Second edition). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, (in press, November 2022).

[2] Matthews, M. D., Lerner, R. M., & Annen, H. (2019). Non-cognitive amplifiers of human performance: Unpacking the 25/75 rule. In. M. D. Matthews and D. M. Schnyer (eds.), Human Performance Optimization: The science and ethics of enhancing human capabilities. New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Stein, Steven J., and Paul T. Bartone. Hardiness: Making stress work for you to achieve your life goals. John Wiley & Sons, 2020.

[a] The concept of “real-time” resilience is embraced by the U.S. Army and is part of its resilience skills training program, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. For more information, see Karen J. Reivich, Martin EP Seligman, and Sharon McBride, "Master resilience training in the US Army." American Psychologist 66, no. 1 (2011): 25. (also available at…)

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