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Survivorteam! What it Takes to Get through the Tough Times

Lynn Thorsell

I just finished reading a book by “Survivorman” Les Stroud that my brother-in-law lent me. Will to Live: Dispatches from the Edge of Survival succinctly recounts seven incredible ­­­­­­true stories of people surviving and attempting to survive through outrageously extreme conditions. Reading these stories - along with Stroud’s assessment of what contributed and detracted from their chances of survival - brought me to reflect on parallels with personal and organizational success in everyday life. What can these tales from the uttermost edges of experience teach us about how we lead our teams and ourselves in difficult times?

Assess the Situation Thoroughly and Impartially

What struck me first and foremost is that the most successful survivors made a realistic assessment of the situation very early, and shared that information with their companions. This may be one of the most challenging and critical differentiators.

How many of us, when confronted with information that is frightening or that goes against our most dearly held beliefs and desires, succumb to the tendency to minimize, deny, or ignore that information. We instinctively look for someone to blame (even if that person is oneself)?

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, studying the reactions of people with life-threatening illnesses, listed denial, bargaining, and anger as the most common early reactions.  Unfortunately, the most common reaction to bad news is not the reaction most likely to contribute to success.

Willtolive-200x287Knowing this, it may be helpful for leaders to intentionally practice their responses in lower-stress situations. Simply notice when you have a reaction to information that you find unpleasant, the feelings that arise, and keep bringing yourself back to the facts at hand. The greater the emotional reaction you’re having, the more time you may need to slow down and assess the situation thoroughly. It takes great discipline and character to ingest distasteful information and its implications without spitting it out or pretending it’s something it isn’t. Don’t underestimate this. Practicing under lower-stress situations will help you respond more effectively when things get really hot.

Successful survivors didn’t hoard information either.  If they were with others, they shared information with their companions and helped them cope with it. This was true even for the two Robertson parents stranded in a raft on the Pacific Ocean with their three sons. The most effective survival leaders shared information as openly as possible, and helped others cope with the reality of the situation.

Encourage Yourself and Each Other

You might equate being realistic about a life-threatening situation with succumbing to despair, but in the extreme survival experiences that Stroud describes, this was not the case. Once these people came to terms with the reality of their situation, they were better able to plan a course of action and execute it.  Even when they knew the chance of success was small, they also knew it was the only chance they had.

Sometimes the action was to navigate across treacherous terrain: Antarctic glaciers and crevices; dense tropical jungle; or thousands of miles of open ocean. In other situations, the chosen course of action was to wait for rescue in formidable circumstances: a plane wreck in the Andes Mountains, or a poorly stocked ship trapped in the ice of the Arctic Ocean.

To give themselves the inner strength required to overcome these challenges, the most effective survivors said words of encouragement to themselves - and to their companions.

Yossi Ghinsberg, making his way through the Amazon jungle, kept repeating, “Man of action, man of action!” A Uruguayan soccer team clinging to the side of a mountain simply repeated to each other, “Survive!” Whatever slogan, words, or mantra choosen, people who survived extreme situations reminded themselves and each other of their will to live.

Many of us know the perils of a critical inner voice and negative self-talk. As Richard David Carson describes in Taming Your Gremlin: A Surprisingly Simply Method for Getting out of Your Own Way, people often live with internal monsters that deride us and undermine our work and relationships. The first step in escaping is to notice that it is happening. When we recognize those corrosive messages, we can then choose a different response. Positive or supportive self-talk is one alternative. Again, we can make ourselves more effective in tough times by practicing in lower-stress situations.

Use Down Time to Clean, Repair, and Prepare

By continuing to re-assess the situation as it changed - or as new information became available - survivors continued to adjust their assessments and formulate new responses. Sometimes, due to weather or confinement, the only feasible response was to wait.

When one is exhausted from long hours, physical exertion, and food rationing, I could imagine that it would be tempting to distract oneself and let things slide. Survivors did take time to rest, but they also used down time to keep themselves and their living site as clean as possible; to maintain and repair equipment as well as possible; and to anticipate and prepare for what could lie ahead. If they were in confined situations where movement was difficult, some found ways to exercise their muscles and minds so that they lost as little strength as possible.

When tasked with a demanding project or dealing with multiple life challenges, we can sometimes be tempted to use any down time to simply distract ourselves – watch television, overeat or drink, or otherwise divert our attention from a difficult situation. The first thing neglected may be our physical health, followed the maintenance of our surroundings. The problem is that by neglecting these things, we are unintentionally increasing the risk of something going wrong; thereby compounding the difficulty of the situation.

There are definitely times for recreation, celebration, and vacation. When times are tough, we need to balance those with the objectives we are trying to achieve. Celebrating small victories encourages us to continue. Sometimes a recreational break replenishes people’s motivation and re-energizes their efforts. Too much, though, can distract us from the challenging task at hand.

Most importantly, when times are tough we need, as much as we are able, to attend to those things that maintain our health and well-being. And we should encourage our teams to do the same. Going for a run may seem frivolous when you have a deadline looming. Taking the time to put things away or do the dishes may seem like a hassle. But, in the long run, these are the things that will make it easier for you to succeed.

Survivors know that.


I could not help but recall the philosophy of Shackleton and his epic trip to the south pole. He knew what would be ahead and planned accordingly. If you had the technical skills he needed and you were positive or could entertain by playing a musical instrument you would be placed higher on his list. He knew that when times were tough people would need something to raise their spirits and the more positive folks he had the better the whole group would fare. So many of your thoughts support that idea. What do our current leaders look for? Seldom those same qualities I fear. Yes, we may not face the same physical dangers in many corporations, but we still face challenges where we need a ‘can do attitude. I have a hunch corporations could benefit from those attributes today. What do you think? What is showing up in your organisation?

By Heather Hughes on 2011/04/13

Lynn, it’s very true how people will demonstrate extraordinary behaviours when under extreme stress, including bonding and supporting one another. One example is Victor Frankyl who wrote about his experiences in two concentration camps during Word War Two (“Man’s Search for Meaning”). When it comes to organizations under stress (competitors, downsizing) and people rallying to support one another, my view is that the results have been very mixed, especially one it comes to layoffs. Perhaps an organization’s underlying culture is the key factor for determining how employees react during difficult times.

By Jim Taggart on 2011/04/13

Lynn, that’s a great analogy.  In business, I think what the upper echelons do is wait until they are on the business equivalent of a raft in the pacific. 

In his 14 points Dr Deming says “look for problems”.  How many businesses look for potential problems when times are good?  When things are not going well rather that a “realistic assessment”, most of the communications are in the nature of “don’t worry, we’ll handle it”.  What a boon to the company it would be if everyone was fully appraised of the situation and thus could contribute to the recovery.

By Phil Hawkins on 2011/04/13

Heather - I love that you raised the example of Shackleton and the qualities he sought while hiring his team members. I don’t think many leaders give enough weight to the value of a great sense of humour, and entertaining character, or a sunny disposition. In fact, sometimes people with those traits are considered “not serious enough”, yet those may be just the things that help a team get through tough times together.

By Lynn Thorsell on 2011/04/13

Jim, Victor Frankyl is a fantastic example of someone surviving under impossible conditions. I think it’s important that we define what it is about a culture and the behaviour of leaders (official or unofficial) that makes the difference between teams of people supporting one another and “Lord of the Flies”. What was it about Victor Frankyl and his perspective that made the difference? Compassion? A strong and persistent belief in the goodness of people? In his own goodness?

By Lynn Thorsell on 2011/04/13

I used Frankyl as an example in one section of my learning organization e-book (check it out).

By Jim Taggart on 2011/04/13

Phil, the pattern of behaviour in which top leadership sucks up responsibility and tries to take care of the big problems on an organizations behalf is one that Barry Oshry describes well in his work on his work on organizational systems. It’s almost a reflex reaction for people placed in “top” roles to do that, yet the more effective response is, as you say, to appraise others within the organization of the situation and ask for their help in dealing with it.

While I am all for having a realistic assessment of a situation, I’m not sure that it is helpful to always be looking for problems, as Deming recommends. I would put myself in the Appreciative Inquiry camp—looking for the strengths and successes that will inspire us to succeed. I don’t think that precludes making a realistic assessment of a situation. Once that’s done, taking an appreciative perspective is more likely to motivate people than looking for problems, which could provoke despair, conflict, and dealing with problems that don’t need to be fixed.

By Lynn Thorsell on 2011/04/13

Shackleton’s Way should be on every leader’s book shelf. When I first read it I could not beleive that after all those people had endured they signed up to go with him on another expedition. This ties into the blog I wrote recently about ‘In Praise of Followers’. Yes, we need leaders and great leaders at that, but those same leaders also rely on people who will roll up their sleeves to get the job done. If you missed it check out the earlier blog on this topic I’d like to hear your viewpoint.

By Heather Hughes on 2011/04/13

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Posted by Lynn Thorsell
Posted on April 12, 2011

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Categories: communication, hr & talent management, leadership, lessons learned