Resilience - To the Brink and Back
By Chris Gibson MBE
How to rebound from being pushed to mental and physical exhaustion to thrive again.
I was a soldier, I was a widower with young children, I led a high performing professional organisation which was constantly in the lens of much hierarchical and media scrutiny. I was repeatedly asked to deliver better and more usually within compressed timelines with less resources. I broke. This is my story of the warning signs around resilience erosion and the methodology and support I found and successfully applied, to shine a light on the path out of an overmatched personal bandwidth.
I have heard people say that comparing the military to professional sport is like comparing apples and pears however, I disagree apart from the obvious facets of being predominantly young, fit and ambitious there are further parallels between what the military and professional sporting organisations deliver. The bottom line for me is that both organisations exist for three main reasons: competition, diffidence and glory. As such it is logical that we learn from each other. So let me share my story.
I held a senior military leadership position in preparing, training and assuring military trauma hospitals to deploy on operations. Just as in sport the pace was demanding to say the least and consistently changing with new equipment, tactics, techniques and procedures. Just as we started to see the demand drop with the recovery of personnel from conflict, the new threat of Ebola Virus Disease appeared on the horizon. In 5 weeks we had to design, train, assure and deploy the force to deliver first world care in the rigor of a West African jungle against the most dangerous opponent known. It would be fair to say that I was viewed by the organisation as someone who could deliver having won a few bells and whistles for leadership and innovation in previous 12 months and much was expected.
But in the background to all of this dynamic and seemingly positive activity I had 2 grieving children who had lost their mother to illness and I had not dealt with my own emotions and was starting to become deeply fatigued and crumble. The good news was that 1200 medical staff deployed and all returned safely. My boys have grown into fine you men who make me proud every day (mostly). The bad news was that once I got the medics to the far shore my capacity to deal with anything at all was starting to unravel and become evident to those around me. I remember starting to isolate myself for fear of appearing weak or incompetent. To not eat (very strange behaviour for me). Not be able to function. The smallest task would take forever, everything seemed too much. People who knew me would repeatedly ask are you ok? I would just brush it off. I would cry lots, for no apparent reason. For a soldier of some 30 years of service this was all new and really scary.
So what to do? Nothing and get worse or reach out? I chose to reach out. This is the decision that was the hardest yet in some ways the simplest. It was the decision that turned it around for me. I sought the appropriate support which was made available really quickly. I spoke with my organisation and they couldn’t have been more understanding, supportive and discreet. This really was the morale component in action. Of course, when you receive professional support it is not all just take you have to give and act to get the benefit. The giving for me was being able to talk about my feelings (never done before) and the act was starting to do activities that made me feel good about myself. Most of this was exercise based but I also read which I love but had for years made excuses as to why I had stopped and got right out of my comfort zone through activities such as guided meditations and breathing exercises. I found by sticking with it slowly I started to calm my brain down, find space to think and see a brighter future. There is no doubt as I reflect back that the holistic nature of well-being support that the military threw around me in my time of need saw me through this. As I continue to bounce back and succeed again I have looked at the many academic models around personal resilience and although at the time I was completely unaware, on reflection these 6 domains of reframing thinking, managing emotions, moderating stress, practicing positivity, reaching out and connecting and clarifying what you are all about are those that really made a personal difference
As I have moved on from the military to work not only with sports teams but with commercial business leaders to support with resilience building and leadership development I have noticed that one of the key factors that is repeatedly under invested in organisationally is that of morale component of the enterprise. Whereas the physical and conceptual components have real and tangible support with amazing buildings and training facilities with cutting edge technology coming out of the woodwork. Yet it is the morale component that supports the people and it is the people that deliver the effect. It is such investment that makes them get up and come to work as their whole self and deliver time and again knowing that the organisation values them and has their back. For me this is the golden thread which leads to individual and organisational success and it needs to be nurtured and invested in.
So how can we learn, both as an individual and organisationally? For me it is understanding what can transfer and translate from those in camouflage to those in tracksuits and vice versa. It is my view that the holistic approach to people first cultures that the military have developed over decades is one that has credence. The many traditions that the military had which are always being scrutinised from a financial perspective are there not because of the pomp and ceremony and for old colonels to dine out on but from a deep understanding that the social aspect of an organisation is its heartbeat. This is where individuals can relax, learn, be coached and mentored and be generally looked after. This is the safe space where anxieties can be shared without any adverse inference being drawn where lessons are shared and challenged. I am yet to see this fully activated in an elite sporting environment but it should be.
Positively though in the past month I have spoken with several high performing sporting teams in North America all of whom have appointed a lead for individual player well-being and development. Is this the green shoots of sport recognising that if we invest in the well-being of the individual who was initially recruited because of their raw talent perhaps we will get a better return from them? I really do hope so. Perhaps they will feel confident enough to bring their whole self in to the workplace and will be allowed to flourish. Perhaps we will move from athletes lying about how they feel though fear of being benched to having a safe space to recover and come back stronger. Is this the cultural shift in sport that is required that acknowledges and balances the morale requirements of individuals? I do hope so because if it is the results will be more positive for everyone and there will be less people like me having my resilience pushed to the brink and back.
Chris is a Director of The Growth Pod a specialist provider of development of individuals, teams and organisations which puts well-being at the heart of all activity. Chris left the Armed Forces in 2018. His initial service with the Close Protection Unit and Special Forces saw him deployed to some of the more remote and austere locations the planet has on offer. Chris commissioned into the Royal Army Medical Corps in 2004 and has continued in his interest in team development, leadership and culture within organisations. A graduate of NHS Staff College he enjoyed developing and delivering a portfolio of leadership development courses for NHS executives. His assignment to Army Medical Services Training Centre and Chief Instructor afforded him the opportunity to utilise his Post Grad Qualifications in simulation, management and leadership to assist in best preparing units for operational deployment. This included the demands of developing a methodology for training and assuring all those who deployed to West Africa to assist in tackling the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak. Of late he was tasked by government to assist London Ambulance Service NHS Trust out of CQC imposed Special Measures. As well as having a deep interest in supporting elite sport, he recently completed work with The Ministry of Justice as a Special Advisor on violence reduction within UK prisons. Chris has been recently awarded with a Special Recognition award from The Health Services Journal and UK International Innovator of the Year.