Jason R. Waller
What a Special Forces Commander Taught Me About Resilience
How do we inspire others when times are hard and the chips are down? How do we balance being competent with being compassionate, and still push forward? How do we self-manage and deal with adversity at the personal level?
These are questions that more and more of us have been facing, even before the current pandemic dialed the volume up to 11. I brought these questions to a friend of mine, Chris Schmitt, because he has more of the answers than anyone else I know.
Chris was a Green Beret — he was in the Army for decades and commanded a range of special operations units across three continents. He has a PhD in adversity (figuratively, although he does have a masters in organizational development).
My conversation with Chris also led to this article about the Competence/Compassion Model of leadership. And while this model is a great lens for leadership more broadly, this is also a big component of resilient leadership that I’ll mention below. But I was curious about how Chris approached resilience personally, how he got through the hard times. What lessons about grit and tenacity did he learn in the Special Forces, lessons that could apply to everyone?
Embrace the Suck
“Resilience is the space that exists between getting what we need and having a stress reaction” –Chris Schmitt
“Embrace the suck” is a common phrase I heard (and said) many times in my military career. It doesn’t mean get over yourself or just pretend that it’s not hard. It means actually accept that it is hard, maybe really, really hard, and then lean into it.
When Chris thinks about embracing the suck, he thinks about stepping into the swamp in Ranger School. The third and final phase of Ranger School, called the swamp phase, is a grueling test of mental and physical endurance. Students here spend their days and nights in Florida, navigating swampy waters, battling exhaustion, and coping with the physical pains that come with constantly being wet.
When I face a new problem, I come at it with a bit of stoicism. I imagine stepping into that swamp in darkness, feeling the water fill my boots and rise up to my armpits. And thinking “Well, I’m here now.” It’s about embracing the suck, about it being so over-the-top uncomfortable that there’s no way out but through. I think about the swamp metaphor a lot, and now I come at bad situations with a bit of a chuckle and a “Well, I’m here now.”
When we find ourselves in hard situations, we get to decide how we react. Sure, it’s easier said than done, but “embracing the suck” is about meeting the new challenge with a wry smile. It’s about pausing and thinking versus reacting out of emotion.
One tip from Chris: just breathe. Slow down enough to clarify where to go next. Chris uses the 4–7–8 breath, meaning 4 seconds of slow inhale through the nose, hold for seven seconds, and exhale through the mouth for eight. I use the 4-count box breathing technique, but the key point is to just pause and reset. Embrace where you are.
Perspective is Everything
“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” –Marcus Aurelius
Chris’s second tenet on resilience is that perspective is everything. How we choose to perceive the current situation is just that, a choice. Critical here for Chris is this idea that “I’ve been here before.” Chris’s perspective is also bigger than himself. “I’m supposed to be here, there’s a reason” is something he’s always reminding himself of if things are really hard.
When I’m in “the suck,” one thing that helps is that it’s not the first time. And it won’t be the last. This bigger perspective is that “‘”this too shall pass.” Experience helps with perspective, once you’ve seen a few patterns, but it’s also conditioning. For example, I always looked forward to blizzards in Wisconsin, because I grew up with them. When a blizzard hit, it meant we pulled the best food out of the freezer, mom and dad were home, and we got to play outside when it was all over. For me, the bad times are a snowstorm. Both scary and fun, but we get to choose which to look at.
Here’s another way I think about this. When I notice that things aren’t going the way I hoped or imagined, I will try asking myself “what is the gift in this?” What new things is this situation or circumstance giving me? This isn’t to downplay trauma or to shrug off the real difficulties or injustices of life. But even the biggest pain offers us something to build from.
Balance Competence with Compassion
“I think the most effective leaders have to understand who they are leading in the context in which they’re leading them — which really comes down to empathy.” –Stanley McChrystal
When Chris and I spoke about how he thinks about leadership, we developed this model of competence counterbalancing compassion. Every leader needs to have both as cornerstones, but we need to be able to flex and adapt how much of each we bring to the team.
Depending on the context, we may need to bring in more compassion to connect and be real, support and motivate the team. Depending on the context, we may need to bring in more competence to direct the team and get practical about next steps and outcomes. Here’s Chris:
I use the competence versus compassion model as a handhold when I’m trying to show up as a leader in a crisis. Kurt Lewin, one of the fathers of organizational development, did a lot of work in the early 20th century that involved similar approaches. It’s not about being all these things at once. It’s about, based on the situation and context, being compassionate enough, competent enough, with enough clarity to be practical.
But there’s a bigger connection here that applies to personal resilience, when we apply the model to leadership of ourselves. Self-leadership is just as important if not more so when the times get tough.
The next time I feel overwhelmed or in a crisis, I’m going to put this model into practice for myself. I want to ask myself the deep and genuine question: what do I need more of right now? If it’s competence — meaning structure, answers, and a path forward — then I want to see what experiments to run or next steps to take. Figure things out.
But I also know that this is my default reaction. If I’m really asking myself the question of what do I need, it will often be more compassion. More patience for myself, more acceptance that things are unclear and difficult. More knowing that there might not be a path forward yet, if even there needs to be.
Resilience is built and exercised like a muscle. Just like a muscle, it gets stronger with practice and also with proper rest and self-care. Chris Schmitt is more than familiar with adversity, he’s comfortable with it. And while personality and context come a lot into play, the biggest advantage he has is that he’s seen it play out time and time again.
How do we make it really relevant for us? “Embrace the suck” is an easy thing for me to type into an article, much harder to live in the moment. Like Chris mentioned, start by stopping. Pause, take a few deep breaths, and accept that it’s hard. Stop pretending it’s easy and embrace the suck. Don’t fight it, smile and welcome it in. It’s not going away in either case.
Once you accept things as they are, play with a new perspective. Perspective is everything. Yes, Chris has had combat tours in distant lands to reinforce that this “isn’t so bad.” But what have you been through before? What challenges and difficulties have you come through before, and how did you get through them then? What strengths do you have inside of you to meet this new challenge?
Finally, pay attention to what you really need more of in the moment. How are you going to give yourself more competence when you need it, when you know you just need to have things figured out a bit more but are dragging your feet on the next step? How are you going to show yourself more compassion when that’s what you need, when you notice that “taking action” is just ignoring how you feel?
I hope Chris’s thoughts have given you some more tools to bring out when you need them, I know they did for me. Good luck on the journey. It won’t be easy at points — and that’s okay.
Christopher Schmitt is a former US Army Green Beret who led teams in Afghanistan, the Sahara, and the Balkans. He founded Azimuth Consulting Group to facilitate leadership workshops and non-traditional, adventure-based development programs.
Jason R. Waller is a US Army combat veteran and intelligence officer who deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of Asia during his 15-year career. After working for McKinsey & Company, he became a founder, an executive coach, and a top writer on Medium.
Originally published in Mind Cafe