Productive Leaders

Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

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Can leaders teach resiliency?

Why do some people bounce back from difficult life events seemingly easier than other people? How do some people, such as firefighters, law enforcement, and the military (and I would include teachers, all teachers) manage tough situations better than others.  Some people seem to press on and be more resilient than others. How?  Is this ingrained or is it taught?

The truth is some people deal with life’s challenges and tragedies better than others. This is resiliency.

Some people respond faster and better in crises than others. They seem to always know what to do, while their counterparts are often paralyzed with shock. What is the difference?

Researchers studying resiliency looked at United States Marine Corps and Navy Seals to see how they manage to train for action when confronting difficult situations.

What they found is there are neurological differences with people who tend to rebound from difficult situations. Highly resilient people experience a shorter time between the emotional response and taking action. Some observers used to dismiss that as “those people just don’t care” which is why these warriors were able to respond quickly and appropriately.  That could not be further from the truth. Resilient people care as deeply as anyone else, but they manage to postpone the emotional reaction until the crisis is concluded.

Once the crisis is over, they process the difficulties better than others.  Can this be taught?

Researchers found that we can train for resiliency by helping people prepare and then giving them the right path and action to take. The brain, through practice, then goes more quickly to the action, instead of being incapacitated by the emotion. This research also showed that people with high levels of exercise increase the neurons, so the path to the action speeds up in our brain.

Training for difficult situations helps us respond appropriately. Most of us would agree that rational people do not go into burning buildings. Yet firefighters do. They are able to overcome the innate desire to run from fire because they have the training and the gear that gives them the response of going into the building instead of out. Training and the confidence in the training builds resiliency.

So how can we build resiliency?

We need a core of people you can trust when things go wrong. We need community.

We need to know that others have succeeded.  Have you ever thought “Oh, I can’t do that” and then you meet someone who did whatever “that” was and you think well, “If he/she can do that, I can do that too?”

We need a strong sense of the ability and the need to move forward and to overcome  the setbacks and obstacles. 

We have to believe that events or the situation will improve with effort.

How can leaders teach this?

Leaders can help build resiliency and help people be successful by:

  1. Letting people fail. Paradoxically, allowing people to fail builds resiliency.  People need to try, to risk, and then try some more. This comes from failing a few times along the way. Resilient people are not people who have never failed. They are people who have learned from trying, failing, and trying again. Alibaba founder, Jack Ma, was rejected from 30 jobs, including KFC, before becoming the richest man in China.

    What did Grandpa tell us? “If you fall off, get back on the horse.” One of the issues today is that people are afraid to allow for mistakes, and they want to protect others from failure. Falling off the horse is not the end of the world. Being scared and not getting back on the horse is failure. Failing and trying again helps us become more resilient.

  1. Teaching the ability to solve problems. This means not solving the all of the problems yourself. The most difficult task a leader (or a parent) has is not doing something ourselves when we know we could solve the problem quickly. Instead we need to pull back and ask:

    “What do you think will happen next?”

    “What is the next step?”

    “What do you think you should do?”

    It is really hard watching people make mistakes and not step in, but people don’t learn if someone else is doing the job for them.

    For example, you cannot teach your baby to walk by carrying the baby all the time. At some point, they have to try to walk. They are going to fall down. They will bump their head and bruise a knee and they will sometimes cry. They pick themselves up, they climb back up, and they keep going. None of us learned how to walk while we were being carried.

  1. Remembering the goal. It is easy to get discouraged if you only see the failures. Every attempt is a step towards success, even if that attempt wasn’t the solution. Keep the big picture in mind.
  1. Defaulting to the right response. Making allowances for people to fail is not carte blanche for not holding people accountable. Failure without a lesson IS failure. When the US military conducts an exercise we have a “hot wash” where we discuss the quick “what went right and what went wrong” part of the exercise. Then in the final summation there is a “lessons learned” section. We have to learn what to do when things do not go right. We take note of the failures and figure out a way to avoid failing in the future. We accept responsibility for the problem and move to create a better outcome.


  1. Knowing the difference between a problem and an inconvenience. Problems are life threatening, serious issues. Inconveniences are when you get the middle seat on an airline, when someone cuts you off in traffic, when your neighbor doesn’t keep the lawn mowed, or when you don’t get that promotion or pay raise. Let the inconveniences go. Focus on solving real problems.

Especially during the holidays we need to watch out for each other, be alert to signs of a serious problem, and help each other.

Happy Veterans’ Day to all of my fellow Veterans. Freedom isn’t free.  Thank you. 


  1. John Marx

    Hi Mary,
    Nicely said. You have captured the essence of what it takes to not only become more resilient but also how to pass that knowledge on to others. The true mark of a leader is when they can build others up while not doing everything themselves. Best wishes and Happy Veterans Day! Thank you for your service!

  2. Adam Wargon

    Great article, Mary!

    Thank you for sharing your insights.

  3. Lynn Kennedy Baxter, RN, LMFT

    Excellent, thought-provoking article. I also suspect that the personal decision to be resilient is a precursor to all of the strategies you mentioned.

  4. Melanie Smithson

    Great article Mary. Spot on. We can also cultivate resiliency by accessing the body’s wisdom- changing how we move, how we sit, how we stand. Where the body goes, the mind will follow! Become more flexible in your physical body and your emotional body will tag along.


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