Resiliency: A Leadership Issue

  • Published
  • By Chaplain (Col.) Steve Schaick
  • Air Education and Training Command Chaplain
There is good reason for all the talk about resiliency. Simple ideas, when practiced, can have a huge impact on the lives of Airmen and their families. Resilient people not only spring back from the curveballs of life but actually get stronger in the process. Yet all too often when we look to grow resiliency in the force, we turn to the "experts" and expect that a briefing here and a briefing there will do it. Indeed, a regular diet of resilience principles can contribute to a more ready force; but resilience is first and foremost a leadership issue.

Nan Henderson, president of Resiliency in Action, suggests there are six things leaders can do to dramatically affect both individual and organizational resiliency. With permission, we have taken these six principles and translated them into operational terms. They are:

Grow wingmen 

The wingman idea is central to our Air Force culture. Wingmen take care of wingmen and don't tolerate careless or reckless behaviors such as speeding, alcohol abuse and dangerous stupidity. People sometimes set out to do brainless and dangerous things, not necessarily with the intent to hurt themselves, but to see if anyone cares enough to stop them. Sometimes what we need more than anything is a friend to look us in the eyes and say, "No! Don't do it." Resilience-growing leaders know the importance of growing wingmen.

Expect excellence 

A second way leaders create a culture of resiliency is by setting high, but realistic, expectations. Excellence is not only one of our Air Force Core Values, but it builds winning teams. Statistics prove that suicide attempts are dramatically reduced in cities that celebrate a major sporting event victory like a Super Bowl win. Why? Everyone wants to be on a winning team, and winners practice excellence.

Encourage service 

Service before self is not only our second core value, but did you know that those who practice generosity and make positive contributions to others end up contributing to their own resiliency? We are wired for service. Something deep within us longs to make a difference in the lives of others, and when we help others, we grow in our own ability to deal with life's darkest challenges. Organize a service day for a local orphanage, soup kitchen, or homeless shelter and watch your unit grow in its ability to take on the mission with passion and courage. Resiliency grows as we put service into action.

Grow unit cohesion 

Connected people are more resilient than isolated people. Facebook and Twitter don't build the kind of communities we most need. I recently learned of a squadron commander who bought his morale-challenged unit a meat smoker. So now, about once a week, squadron members fill the smoker with slabs of meat and take turns nursing the coals. And at the appointed hour, Airmen gather around to stuff dinner rolls with smoked brisket as the commander watches the unity and resiliency of his unit grow.

Clarify expectations 

Leaders who are unclear about their expectations unintentionally increase the stress of subordinates and diminish resiliency. Good leaders seek not just to be understood, but work hard at keeping from being misunderstood. Seek feedback from others in determining the clarity and consistency of your expectations. Be sure expectations are clear and know that your unit's resiliency and ability to fly, fight and win rest in the balance. Resilience-minded leaders ensure their goals and expectations are clear to all.

Develop life skills 

Strained relationships and troubled marriages affect mission in incalculable ways. If an Airman is to show up distracted and ineffective at work, chances are there's a relationship issue to blame. Nearly every suicide can be traced to a relationship failure. Good leaders partner with helping agencies to find ways to intentionally grow life skills in their Airmen.

Resiliency is the ability to spring back, learn from and maybe even grow through adversity. Resilience trainers no doubt provide critical assistance to the commander, but resiliency is first and foremost a leadership issue.