Along the path of life, something will happen that will rock you to your core. Resilience is what determines whether that traumatic event will leave you shaken and helpless or a stronger leader. The event will be different for everybody, but that is the great thing about resilience; its principles and concepts transcend circumstance.
The principles of good leadership are similar in that they are universal, whether they are practiced by a stay-at-home parent, a school principal or a battlefield leader. When circumstances are in chaos, everyone looks to leaders to be a center of calm. They can’t provide that grounding sense of peace without resilience.
Many professions spend the majority of their training time on toolset and skillset. The ability to use a tool such as a computer or a drafting pencil to great effect is a skill. It’s what universities, law enforcement and military academies tend to spend a great deal of time teaching. But what lies beneath toolset and skillset? What makes up our core, as people? Mindset and heartset. They are elemental, basic to who we are, yet few organizations invest in developing them. It’s not a quantifiable metric, so they are reluctant to put time and resources where they can’t get a measured outcome.
To explore mindset, we need to define resilience; the most generally accepted definition is “the ability to bounce back.” I believe resilience can be front-loaded by pre-programming our neural pathways in anticipation of the destructive event we know is on the horizon. This allows resilience to become a natural part of our mental process. Heartset has two facets; they are purpose and living for something greater than self. It’s finding the inner drive to get off the couch when everything around you has crumbled into bits.
I discovered how elemental heartset and mindset are when I was the lead non-commissioned officer in charge as part of an embedded counter-insurgency advisor team in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. We were not living on a base, and we were each partnered with an Afghan brother to advise and mentor so they could stand on their own whenever we left that country.
The Taliban had tried several times to attack us with small arms and bombs, but to no effect. Then we got intel that they brought in three suicide bombers to target the American advisors and our Afghan counterparts. In our city, three Afghan intelligence service station chiefs were lost to suicide bombers. That was the reality. We knew the threat level had increased, and we discussed how to mitigate it. There was no way to eliminate all the risk; the only option would have been to leave the country immediately, totally throw away all the work that we had done, and abandon our Afghan partners.
We tried to mitigate the risk as best as we could, which was difficult because to be effective in counter-insurgency, you have to be accessible to the people. You want the people to be able to talk to you, to give you information, to tell you about Taliban activity, for example. But with this openness comes the risk that a suicide bomber could approach you under the guise of a civilian who wants to talk to you, and then they would detonate. We chose to accept the risk and keep working.
On April 4, 2012, I was on a patrol coming out of a park. I had about ten Afghans and a handful of Americans with me when suddenly there was an explosion and the lights went out. A suicide bomber had walked into our patrol and detonated.
I woke up on my face. The bomb had detonated behind me, and it threw me across the street. I was nauseous, and I knew I wasn’t breathing, so I made myself take a breath. Then I flipped myself over and assessed myself. My right leg was inside out. When I looked at it, toolset and skillset kicked in right away. My first thought was to stop the blood from spurting out of me, because I had double femoral artery and brachial artery bleeding. I began applying my tool, a tourniquet. Every man and woman on the patrol has to carry a minimum of four tourniquets, and they have to be able to put them on by themselves. That’s the skill. I put two tourniquets on myself. If I didn’t have them or I couldn’t put them on when I was half-dead, I wouldn’t be here today. The toolset and skillset were elemental, but I needed more.
I began to get extremely sleepy and thirsty due to blood loss. This is where heartset came into play; something greater than self to live for, a sense of purpose, a reason for being. You may not be lying on a street in northern Afghanistan fighting to stay alive. You could be fighting for your organization. A bout of depression could have you fighting for a reason to get up, get out of bed, shower and put your shoes on again. In all cases, you must have something to hold onto.
For me, it was a promise I had made. When I left for Afghanistan, my wife was understandably emotional. She asked me to promise that I would come home. I told her I could not promise that in good faith; I had been to too many funerals of men who were stronger and better than me. But I did promise her that if something happened, I would fight through anything to make it home. I would not stop, as long as I had breath in my lungs. I would not stop.
I remember when I was lying there, I kept alternating between twisting the tourniquet and passing out. I was tempted to lay my head back and take a short nap, and if my eyes never opened up again in this world, then so be it. But then my mind took me back in time to that exact moment sitting in our Subaru Impreza when I made my wife that promise, and I got angry. The enemy did not have a right to take me away from my family. I was going to keep my promise, or I was going to die trying.
We were medevacked by locals to a different part of Afghanistan, which was a result of our unit’s mindset to be intellectually curious and show respect. This would not have happened in other parts of the country where units did not treat the population like they were genuine human beings. We did, at risk to ourselves. We lived with them. We spent all our time with them. We treated them like our brothers and invested in them, so that when we got hurt, they came to our aid.
Everybody in the patrol was either killed or hurt. There were five Afghans and three Americans killed. My Afghan brother, Ghulam, who was right next to me, was killed. Eleven civilians were killed on the scene, and more died later due to wounds and infections. There’s nothing special about me, but if I didn’t have the resilience to take care of myself, I would have been an empty well when my wounded brothers needed me. Because people invested in me and I developed resilience, I was able to be strong for others. That’s the job of a leader, and it doesn’t have to be on a battlefield.
We develop personal resilience as a whole-person concept—mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally—because the body is synergistic. We pre-program neural pathways to speed up the OODA loop. OODA is the decision-making process that every human goes through, either at a tactical or strategic level; observe, orient, decide and act. In an organization, there could be forecasts of an economic downturn or layoffs to think through. How are those conversations going to go? Could something be put in place right now to mitigate those events?
Post-traumatic growth is real and can take the place of post-traumatic stress, but sometimes you have to speak it into life. It doesn’t mean there’s not loss, but out of that trauma, there comes gain; it serves as a springboard to a richer existence. My trauma was a thirteen-year-old male wearing a 25-pound suicide vest. Yours could be an issue within your organization or the loss of a loved one, but something will certainly happen that will rock you to your very core. In your profession, tools and skills will take you from preevent to just over the other side of the explosion. Mindset and heartset are what you can use right now to navigate all the way through that event to the abundant growth on the other side.
David H. Lau retired from the U.S. Army in 2014 with 21 years of service. He is active as a volunteer with local combat wounded veterans, serving as the Georgia Chapter President of Wind Sports for Wounded Warriors—a 501(c)(3) non-profit that focuses on the physical and emotional health of combat veterans. David also works as a trainer for the Department of Homeland Security.
Photo by Dimitar Donovski on Unsplash.